Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich is going to the top to prevent another disaster like the conflicted response to August’s Station Fire.
Antonovich has written to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein requesting a Congressional investigation into the U.S. Forest Service’s claims that terrain in the Angeles National Forest prohibited the use of aerial support.
County firefighters contend that air support at first light of the fire’s second day could have contained the fire and perhaps prevented the casualties and widespread disaster that made the Station Fire the largest fire in Los Angeles County history.
His letter was prompted by an article in the Los Angeles Times that pointed out conflicting information from Forest Service officials and ground commanders, specifically regarding the cancellation of air units the second day of the fire. Documents used for the story were obtained through a Freedom Of Information request filed by the Times.
“Ground commanders requested air support and the US Forest Service higher command refused to provide air support at a time when the fire was just beginning to spread,” Antonovich said. “Had we had air support in place, we could have averted the tragic loss of life and the 160,000 acres being destroyed from this fire.”
Long a champion of the firefighting experts who staff the county ranks, Antonovich says if the county, which is more familiar with the terrain than the federal fire crews, had been in charge, things would have played out much differently.
“We need to have answers for the failures that led up to this loss of life and property so in a future fire, we can put the fire out immediately and protect life and property. That’s our responsibility,” he said. “We have a great fire department, had they been in charge, we would not be where we are today, but the US Forest Service was the commander in this operation. We were only a support unit, called upon when they wanted our support arsenal.
The supervisor said that there have been problems with the Forest Service administering fire response in the past, adding that the biggest problem comes from the vast difference in brush clearance requirements and the red tape that ties the hands of USFS commanders.
“They have a 30-foot brush clearance policy, whereas the County has a 200-foot brush clearance,” he explained. “We’d like to see the federal government comply with LA County standards to protect property. Secondly, we’re able to use mechanized firefighting equipment immediately when fires occur, and the federal government requires the Forest Service to call Washington for approval to use the equipment, which delays getting mechanized equipment on the fire.”
“Thirdly, aircraft for the County flies early in the morning and late at night,” he continued. “US Forestry does not fly at night and don’t fly early in the morning; these are policies the federal government has instituted and we’ve asked (Congressman) Buck McKeon to look into this.
“It makes the difference between fires spreading to residences and communities,” he said, recalling a visit to the scene with McKeon and LA County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. The Board of Supervisors passed a unanimous resolution in September asking Congress to make changes in the Forest Service’s flight policies.
Antonovich’s goal is to avoid the conflict that hampered the Station Fire response.
“We are requesting that L.A. County Fire be the lead agency on all fires in our County because of the experience and training that they have had on these kind of fires, unlike the U.S. Forest Service, who are used to wild mountainous areas.
“LA County is larger than 42 states,” Antonovich said. “We’re not a little municipality. We focus on protecting life and property and US Forestry doesn’t.”