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Piece of Mind: Hard questions, disappointing answers

December 21, 2011

What reading material is on your bedside table this December week? I’d like to be able to recommend a recent release that came into my hands the other day, but it’s a real snooze.

The 80-page report issued by the United States Government Accountability Office: “Station Fire — Forest Service’s Response Offers Potential Lessons for Future Wildland Fire Management” heaps bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy. Do not bother cracking it open unless you’re in the mood to be discouraged. Those of you intrepid enough to take it on can find it online at www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-155. Go there to find the highlights page, and, to the right of the highlights, a link labeled “accessible text” that will give you the whole schmear. Or email me and I’ll send you the link.

You remember the Station fire, right? We are all still living with its lingering effects, most particularly the threat of debris flows. If you were not living here at the time, a brief recap: It started on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009 and ended in October after consuming more than 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, destroying dozens of homes and killing two. The Forest Service determined that the fire was the result of arson. The arsonist has not been caught.

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Local officials demanding answers about what seemed to many of us to have been extraordinarily bad fire management on the part of the Forest Service (but not the individual firefighters, to whom we are grateful), looked to the GAO to dig in and find them.

In this namby-pamby report, which took a full year to produce and has numerous appendixes, tables and maps, I didn’t find any real meat. There are disappointing phrases along the lines of, “We were unable to determine....” and “We were unable to fully answer....”

Another tidbit that caught my eye: The aviation supervisor who declined the use of the Martin Mars air tanker on the day the fire started had since retired, so those writing the report said they could not get his perspective on why this key fire-fighting tool, which was available, had not been used. I’d like a fuller explanation of why they could not interview this retired supervisor. No telephone service to his address? No other way to contact him?

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