Lawmaker Wants Inquiry Into Wildfire Response

It was Day 2 of the Station Fire when incident commanders asked for air support to stop its spread.

Their requests for three tankers was canceled and a helitanker arrived late, according to a review of records by the LA Times.

Now, state and local officials want Congress to investigate whether the U.S. Forest Service's decision to withhold air support was the right call. On Tuesday, Rep. Adam B. Schiff and Los Angeles County  Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for a congressional investigation of  the U.S. Forest Service and its response to the Station Fire.

Schiff, D-Burbank, told The LA Times he will ask Congress to begin a probe  next month to include review of the Forest Service's decision to withhold water-dropping aircraft during the critical second day of the blaze.

Antonovich wrote to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., "I would like to  request a congressional investigation into the Forest Service's failure to  utilize water-dropping aircraft at the earliest stages of the Station Fire  before it spread -- taking the lives of two firefighters, burning over 160,000  acres and destroying over 100 homes and structures...

"Originally the Forest Service reported that the mountainous terrain  prohibited the use of aircraft water drops because they claim that it would not  have been effective without ground support. However,  their logbooks have no evidence of this and reveal that their own incident  commanders repeatedly asked for air support.''

Antonovich and Schiff made their public statements after the Los Angeles  Times reported that records contradict the Forest Service's position  that steep terrain prevented the agency from using helicopters and tanker  planes to attack the fire hours before it began raging out of control.

"Congress really ought to investigate and determine if the right calls  were made," Schiff told The Times. "I hope that we can have an oversight  hearing and get to the bottom of this."

Schiff told The Times he would propose that the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies conduct  the inquiry and would like to participate in the hearing.

Antonovich called for "a congressional investigation into the false  reports by the Forest Service and its failure to stop the fire before it spread."

Two officers responsible for directing the firefight on the ground and  from the sky made separate requests for aircraft during a 6 1/2-hour period on  Day 2, The Times reported, citing records obtained by the federal Freedom of  Information Act as well as interviews.

An order for three air tankers that morning was canceled and a helitanker did not reach the scene in the Angeles National Forest until an hour or so after its scheduled arrival, The Times reported.

A review by the Forest Service concluded last month that aircraft would  have been ineffective because the fire was burning in a canyon too treacherous  for ground crews to take advantage of water dumps.

That finding has been disputed by officers who took part in the battle,  as well as the former fire chief for the Angeles National Forest, Don Feser, who retired in 2007.

In an interview with The Times, Antonovich said the Forest Service  review should have addressed the officers' efforts to launch an air assault.

The Times report on the canceled and delayed air attacks was based  largely on Forest Service dispatch logs and deployment records. Citing documents and interviews, The Times reported earlier that the  Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the flames after the first day,  and that the agency might have missed an opportunity to knock the fire down  early the following morning.

Three weeks before the blaze, the Forest Service instructed supervisors  to cut costs by limiting the use of reinforcements from other fire agencies,  The Times reported. Los Angeles County helicopters helped keep the Station Fire to 15 acres  the first day, but the Forest Service did not bring them back in the same  numbers on Day 2. Forest Service officials said costs did not influence their  tactics.

Schiff told The Times a congressional inquiry would also determine if  the Forest Service has enough aircraft for its mission and whether it has "the  right policies in place."

The Board of Supervisors recently urged Congress to authorize the Forest  Service to deploy firefighting helicopters at night, which the federal agency  generally prohibits because of safety concerns. County choppers routinely fight  fires after dark.

The Station Fire was the largest in Los Angeles County's recorded history.

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