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Federal Report On Lessons to Learn From Station Fire Response

The Government Accountability Office released its 80-page report on the Station Fire last week with recommendations on how to improve the Forest Service's firefighting policies.

The federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report Friday on the Forest Service's response to the 2009 Station Fire, offering various recommendations for improving the organization's firefighting abilities, while declining to draw specific conclusions about whether the Forest Service could have prevented the fire from becoming the largest in Los Angeles County history.

Among the GAO report's recommendations are that the Forest Service institute a plan for reducing  heavy brush “fuels” that helped the Station Fire to spread, find a way to track where retardant and water drops, and expedite their studies on whether to acquire night-flying aircraft and ease rules on their use in Forest Service areas.

The report states that some of these priorities are taking on, noting, for example, that a report on night-flying policies was supposed to be completed in August, but has not yet been finished.  As noted in , some local residents and officials have blamed the service’s night-flying policies for the fast growth of the Station Fire.

But while many key issues and suggested changes are recommended in the report, its authors did not reach a conclusion on whether the service did enough to save homes on Forest Service land or whether different procedures could have stopped the fire much earlier and at a small size.

The report notes that GAO investigators were “able to review the various perspectives of observers but had no method for addressing those differences through analysis,” a stance  which had one local resident who lost his home in the fire describing the report as a “bureaucratic two-step” in a Los Angeles Times article.

 Highlights of the report include:

  • Questions of fundamentally how well prepared the Forest Service is for huge fire events like the Station Fire; the report notes that as of 2011 the Forest Service has 14 air tankers, compared to 19 in 2009 and 44 in 2002.
  • Much of the report also focuses on giving firefighters in the field better information: tracking where retardant and water drops are going would help firefighters figure out how to best to utilize their resources, for example. 
  • The report also suggests that the service needs to adopt policies on when to use its own firefighting assets and when to request them from other agencies like county and state fire agencies. 
  • The report's authors suggest that local Forest Service officials did not communication well enough with the media and public by saying that “some observers” have made that claim.  The report authors do not reach their own conclusions on the issue.
  • The report notes the need for an “action plan” for protecting Mt Wilson, noting that brush reduction that was done while the fire was burning should have been done as a matter of regular maintenance
  • Residents on or near Forest Service land in Big Tujunga Canyon who lost their homes were bound by Forest Service policies to minimize brush clearance to 30 feet around their homes even though California and county standards require 100 feet of “defensible space” where excess brush is trimmed away.  The report recommends changing those policies.

The full report can be read at right.

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