Station Fire Probe - The View From Under the Bus

The LA Times reported today that CA Congress-types are called for a “sweeping probe” into the actions (and/or inactions) of the US Forest Service during the Station Fire.

Lawmakers seek broad probe into Forest Service response to Station fire

By Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2010 [here]

California’s two U.S. senators and several local House members Thursday called on Congress’ investigative arm to launch a sweeping probe into the Forest Service’s response to last summer’s disastrous Station fire.

In asking for the investigation by the Government Accountability Office, which typically grants such requests, the lawmakers recommended a broad examination of the Forest Service’s decisions and tactics. Those include the use of aircraft early in the fight and the question of whether everything possible was done to protect homes that burned in Big Tujunga Canyon.

The legislators also cited the disclosure this week that telephone dispatch recordings made during the fire were withheld from a Forest Service review team and the public. The Times requested the recordings last year and again this year, but Forest Service officials said they did not exist. …

In addition to Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the signers include Reps. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Judy Chu (D-El Monte) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). …

The aforementioned letter [here] states in part:

Both the Forest Service and Los Angeles County Fire Department have conducted reviews of the fire and the response from both of these agencies. However, we have learned today that critical Forest Service dispatch recordings from the start of the fire were withheld from federal review teams. This casts a dark cloud over the findings of the review panel and immediately warrants an independent review of the Station Fire response.

Our purpose for this review is to ensure that all actions in the response to the fire were taken swiftly, properly and competently. Our constituents must know that every possible, reasonable and proper action was taken to fight the fire, and if there were instances where the proper actions were not taken, we must know why.”
It continues:

Most important, we must establish what lessons were learned from this devastating fire. By identifying mistakes made and where different choices would have caused better outcomes, agencies tasked with preventing and fighting fires will be able to better prepare and respond in the future.

We have discussed the Station Fire previously [here, here, here, here].

We have noted how the LA Times has flip-flopped from advocating cutbacks in aerial firefighting, because it is allegedly a waste of money, to decrying the alleged failure to employ timely and expensive aerial firefighting on the Station Fire.

Now Congress is joining the critics.

The USFS made a decision years ago to kowtow to the pro-holocausters, instituting a program of allowing wildfires to burn without any effort to contain, control, or extinguish them. Many of those fires have blown up and caused devastating damage to natural and human-built resources. It must have seemed to the USFS to be the politically expedient thing to do, because there is no other justification for incinerating vast tracts of America’s heritage forests, watersheds, homes, and towns.

Now, when a wildfire has impacted the heart of pro-holocauster neighborhoods in LaLa, the political goodwill the USFS thought it was accumulating has disappeared in a puff (or plume) of smoke. Their supposed political allies have thrown the Agency under the bus.

Let that be a Lesson Learned.

Political types are fickle. They have no loyalty, especially when their policies are ignorant, malformed, and destructive. Political expediency is a slippery prey. Instead of lunging for the expedient, the USFS should remain true to their statutory mission of good stewardship, regardless of whichever way the political winds might blow.

Now the piper has come home to roost. The view from under the bus is not a happy one.

How is the USFS responding? Have they learned their lesson? Not yet. The LA Times reports:

Meanwhile, the inspector general also will examine whether the Forest Service had the legal authority to record phone calls to the Angeles dispatch center without the consent of all callers. Radio dispatch communications are routinely recorded, but the Forest Service wants the inspector general to determine whether the phone recordings violated privacy rights, agency officials said.

In an internal memorandum Wednesday that was obtained by The Times, Forest Service Deputy Chief James Hubbard ordered all dispatch centers to stop recording calls until the matter is resolved.

That is called “circling the wagons” and it is ill-advised.

The USFS has suspended recording emergency dispatch calls? Whom in those communications is a “private” party? Do we suspend recording of 911 calls because some government official screwed up in an emergency?

Is secrecy the best course of action? Has stonewalling worked to date? A famous rule of excavation is: if you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging.

The USFS needs to realize that full transparency and honest stewardship efforts will serve them best in the long run. Otherwise they will be tire-tracked by the Big Political Bus again and again.

6 Aug 2010, 3:05pm
by Larry H.

First of all, here in California, we have “inter-agency dispatch centers”, usually run by Forest Service and CalFire personnel. Because the fire happened in the Angeles National Forest, the kneejerk response is to blame the Forest Service. Additionally, the Forest Service doesn’t actually own their own airtankers and are relegated to ordering them through CalFire, which DOES own their own aircraft.

I’m thinking that the inquiry will find under-experienced personnel manning the dispatch centers, as those jobs seem to have a high turnover and the least experienced get the worst shifts. Since it wasn’t “Santa Ana season”, I’d bet that the “newbies” worked the night shift, and didn’t know how (or where) to pull fresh flight crews and aircraft from.

Also, I’d bet that the investigation will show that the National Forest fire organization is merely the “minor leagues” for other local agencies, as better paying jobs with better benefits draw the best away from the Forest Service.

Reply: be all that as it may, the USFS is under fire (so to speak). We had one whitewash that didn’t stick; I doubt whether another one is going to. An attempt to spread the blame might be the next tactic, however.



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