Forest Service, County Fire Reach Agreement on Night Flights

The tentative agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and local firefights was announced Thursday

The U.S. Forest Service was criticized by residents who lost homes in the 2009 Station Fire that burned 250 square miles of the sprawling forest and killed two firefighters.

One major issue: The agency's use of firefighting aircraft during the early hours of the wildfire and whether water drops could have slowed or extinguished the blaze on the first night. The blaze grew into the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history.

On Thursday, federal foresters announced an agreement with county firefighters that will make it easier to get water-dumping helicopters into the air at night over Angeles National Forest.
The Forest Service has long discouraged night flying because of the risk of operating aircraft in darkness in rugged national forests. The tentative agreement with the Los Angeles County Fire Department would greatly broaden the instances in which forest officials could summon county helicopters for night firefighting.

The deal, expected to be finalized soon, eliminates a requirement that homes or other structures must be in immediate danger for foresters to request help from the county's night-flying helicopters. Under the pact, Angeles officials could ask for county helicopters for night firefighting any time they are considered needed, regardless of location in the 1,000-square-mile forest.

"It opens it up'' for any fire that could become a threat, said county fire department Chief Deputy John Tripp. "We are going to try to do everything in our ability to fill those requests."

The announcement was made at a meeting organized by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

"We are not safer," Rod Driscoll, whose home was destroyed in the Station Fire, told the Pasadena Star-News. "We are going to be in the same situation this year in the area to the east that didn't burn in the Station Fire."

Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said the agency is nearing a decision on whether to allow its pilots to fly at night. The Forest Service experimented with night flying against wildfires in the 1970s and early 1980s, but abandoned it after a helicopter collision.

He disputed claims that firefighting tactics were guided by financial considerations.

"We are not constrained by cost. We want to get the fire out," Harbour said.

A federal review in 2009 found the fire raged out of control because it jumped into steep, inaccessible terrain, not because the U.S. Forest Service scaled back firefighters and aircraft attacking the flames. Congressional investigators are conducting a broad review on the fire that is expected to be completed later this year.

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