Schiff Urges Forest Service to Conclude Long-Delayed Analysis of Night Flights, Identify Needed Assets, and Develop a Plan to Double Crew AircraftFriday December 16, 2011
Washington, DC- Today, following the release of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the response to the August 2009 Station Fire, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote to USDA Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, urging the Forest Service to complete an ongoing assessment of the agency’s night-flying operations as soon as possible; identify needed firefighting assets and develop a cohesive strategy to fight fires; and develop a plan for double-crewing of firefighting tankers.
“I have been eagerly anticipating this GAO report, which evaluates whether the Forest Service actions in response to the Station Fire were taken in the most efficacious way possible,” Rep. Schiff said. “This review helps us to better understand the events surrounding the initial response to the fire, and sets out important steps that the Forest Service should take to improve outcomes in the future – steps that are long overdue.”
The report, “Station Fire: Forest Service’s Response Offers Potential Lessons for Future Wildland Management,” which was requested by Rep. Schiff and several other Members of Congress, highlights the need for the Forest Service to modernize its approach to firefighting and evaluating forest fires. The report acknowledges that the use of night-flying aircraft may have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station Fire before it escaped efforts to contain it, although no definitive conclusion was possible. The Forest Service began a nationwide assessment of the agency’s night-flying operations almost two years ago -- that assessment has still not been concluded.
Please find the full text of Rep. Schiff’s letter below:
“Dear Chief Tidwell,
“As you know, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recently released its report, which I and several other Members of Congress requested, on the response to the Station Fire that burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and took the lives of two fire firefighters in and around the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California in August 2009. The report, “Station Fire: Forest Service’s Response Offers Potential Lessons for Future Wildland Management,” highlights the need for the Forest Service to modernize its approach to firefighting and evaluating forest fires.
“The report acknowledges that the use of night-flying aircraft may have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station Fire before it escaped efforts to contain it. The Forest Service began a nationwide assessment of the agency’s night-flying operations almost two years ago. The report is to study various aspects of nighttime helicopter use, including risk and effectiveness and whether the Forest Service should develop its own night-flying capability use. The study was originally supposed to be completed by August 2011, and now the Forest Service has indicated that it will be “completed later in 2011.” I urge the Forest Service to complete that report as soon as possible and publicly release it, so that the public can determine if the development of the Forest Service’s own night-flying capability is a safe, efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars to fight forest fires.
“The Station Fire also demonstrates the importance of having systematic methods of identifying needed firefighting assets. The GAO, for over a decade, has recommended that the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior develop a cohesive wildland fire strategy that identifies potential long-term options for responding to fires. In 2009, Congress required the agencies to produce a cohesive strategy consistent with GAO’s recommendation. I am pleased that the Forest Service and the Interior Department are in the process of developing the cohesive strategy and have already released some documents pertaining to that strategy. But I am concerned that key elements that the GAO recommended be included in the cohesive strategy – such as considering potential approaches for addressing the growing wildfire threat, estimating the costs of each approach, and identifying trade-offs – have not been included in the early work on developing a cohesive strategy. I urge the Forest Service and the Interior Department to update the already released documents, where appropriate, to include the GAO’s recommendations and to incorporate the GAO’s recommendations in future documents that are expected to be released.
“The Station Fire’s intensity and speed of spread also underscores the importance of having effective fire behavior models available to incident command officials who make decisions about how to fight fires. The effectiveness of the Forest Service’s primary tools for predicting fire activity were limited under certain conditions, particularly the plume-dominated conditions during the critical early days of the Station Fire. The report reveals that the Forest Service is “taking steps to improve the information used to predict weather conditions…and that it is exploring how to better model fire behavior.” I welcome these actions and believe they are long overdue, but I ask that Forest Service indicate in writing what specific steps it is taking to better model fire behavior and what it intends to do with this information once it has been assembled.
“The report also mentions that the Forest Service does not require its contractors to double-crew its firefighting tankers, which would allow them to operate from sunrise to sunset because one crew would be able to operate during the hours in which the other crew is on its mandatory rest period. If the tankers had been able to operate from sunrise to sunset, tankers would have been able to start fighting the fire at 7 am on the first full day of the fire, August 27th, as was requested over the previous night and might have been able to contain the fire more effectively.
“However, the report also indicates that the Forest Service believes that double-crewing the tankers would jeopardize safety because of the age and maintenance requirements of the aircrafts. While it might be expensive to double-crew the tankers in terms of maintenance upkeep and personnel costs, in comparison to the cost of the extensive damaged suffered by Southern California residents due to the Station Fire, I believe that such a step would be cost effective. I strongly urge the Forest Service to consider implementing double-crewing of firefighting tankers and that the Forest Service develop a plan to do so.
“Firefighters and agency officials told the GAO that the Station Fire brought to light the importance of maintaining defensible space around structures in high risk area. Some of the houses in Big Tujunga Canyon could have been better protected if the legally required 100 feet of defensible space around homes and other valuable infrastructure had been implemented. In particular, residents whose properties were located closer than 100 feet to the boundary of ANF or who leased property from the Forest Service were not allowed to create 100 feet of defensible space around their homes. I commend the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region decision, after the Station Fire, to direct forest supervisors to increase the minimum requirement for defensible space around structures within and adjacent to national forests from 30 feet to 100 feet and I welcome the ANF’s decision to evaluate the effects of allowing private landowners to create up to 100 feet of defensible space on national forest land.
“Lastly, the Station Fire made clear the potential risks in not having an agreed upon plan of action between the Forest Service and Los Angeles County to protect critical communication equipment and other infrastructure atop Mt. Wilson. Instead of doing work to more effectively protect it that should have been done before the fire approached Mt. Wilson, some of that work was done during the Station Fire on Mt. Wilson. The report says that “after the Station Fire, the Forest Service and Los Angeles County have recognized the importance of resolving this issue and the Forest Service has taken action to better prepare Mt. Wilson to withstand future wildland fires.” What exactly have the Forest Service and Los Angeles County done to resolve this issue?
“I appreciate your consideration of my requests and I look forward to working with the Forest Service to improve the Forest Service’s firefighting efforts.”