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Politicians grill U.S. Forest Service about Station fire

Congressmen's tough questions aren't enough to satisfy residents who lost their homes.

October 12, 2010|By Megan O'Neil megan.oneil@latimes.com
(Raul Roa/Staff…)

The hours that officials spent during a congressional hearing Tuesday questioning the tactical response to the massive Station fire did little to satiate long-simmering frustration among residents who lost their homes in the blaze.

Local congressional representatives Tuesday grilled U.S. Forest Service officials about their response to the Station fire, including an apparent communication breakdown that delayed aerial water drops at a critical juncture during the first 24 hours of the firefight.

Fire officials have maintained they did everything possible to contain the blaze, and on Tuesday pointed to another obstacle standing in the way of aerial tactics: steep terrain coupled with power lines. But residents at the hearing said the hours of testimony amounted to yet another example of officials trying to shirk responsibility.

“I think it is interesting that the Forest Service’s story has changed yet again,” said Bert Voorhees, whose Vogel Flats home was destroyed as the fire roared through Big Tujunga Canyon on Aug. 29, 2009. “Initially it was [that] there were no tankers available, and then there were no pilots available to fly them, and on and on and on. Now there is this new twist. Suddenly, the real problem area of the fire was so compromised with electric lines that the tankers wouldn’t have done any good.”

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The five-member congressional panel, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), repeatedly asked how firefighters lost control of what started on Aug. 26, 2009, as a 15-acre brush fire, why an aerial attack was delayed in the morning hours of Aug. 27 and what, if any, efforts were made to protect communities in Big Tujunga Canyon.

They also questioned whether a Forest Service directive to minimize costs factored into discussions as fire personnel considered requesting additional resources, as was suggested by a recent review by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“If true, this is a terribly disturbing result — that in an effort to cut costs, the Forest Service risked letting the fire loose with catastrophic consequences,” Schiff said.

Jody Noiron, forest supervisor for the Angeles National Forest at the time of the Station fire — she has since been reassigned to the San Bernardino National Forest — adamantly denied that financial concerns played a role in how the firefight was managed.

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