The USDA Forest Service has released transcripts of recorded telephone conversations made during the course of the arson-caused Station Fire.
The recordings indicate fire managers and dispatchers persistently strategized the best ways to provide firefighting assets as rapidly as possible in the midst of multiple ongoing wildfires on the Angeles National Forest and across Southern California. Forest Service employees discovered the recordings in July.
“I am disappointed we did not discover the existence of these recordings earlier,” said USDA Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Our search for all records has been extremely wide-ranging, but we were not aware of the existence of these recordings on multiple phone line systems when we did our initial review of the fire. When we found them, we initiated the process of transcription through a private contractor.”
Two of these recordings shed additional light on the initial attack: One between the incident commander (IC) of the initial attack and a dispatcher, and another between two dispatchers. Although the latter includes some ill-considered attempts at humor, the recordings demonstrate the dispatchers’ resolve to meet the IC’s request for additional firefighting resources, including airtankers and helicopters, made shortly after midnight following the long evening of initial attack.
The recordings indicate the IC understood the gravity of the fire situation. In one conversation shortly after midnight following initial attack (PDF), the IC reiterated his request to the dispatcher for morning airtankers as soon as possible. Although in one comment the IC acknowledged doubt that aircraft would be available by 0700, he persisted in his request for aircraft to arrive at 0700. The dispatcher repeated the 0700 request to the IC and went to work to meet it. Fire managers, including ICs and dispatchers, understand that requirements for pilot briefings and work-rest parameters govern the actual time aircraft are deployed. The IC was aware a number of pilots, including airtanker pilots, had flown initial attack the prior evening and would be unable to fly that morning if they had been unable to get their required crew rest.
“It would be a mistake to focus on side comments or unfortunate jokes made by highly-skilled wildfire professionals in the early morning hours of a multiple fire situation,” said Tidwell. “These experienced dispatchers were clearly brainstorming many options to get every possible asset to the Station Fire as soon as possible. The way they carried out their jobs tells me they were focused on the seriousness of the situation, and that is what matters in an unfolding, large scale emergency. As for these attempts at humor, they are inappropriate and unacceptable.”
“These recordings tell me our firefighters engaged this fire aggressively,” said Angeles National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron. “Placed in the context of a new, fast-changing emergency, these candid conversations were focused on one thing: getting the right assets to the fire as soon as possible.”
“The Forest Service deeply regrets the tragic loss of life of two Los Angeles County firefighters and the loss of homes during the Station Fire. The Forest Service’s highest priority on every wildland fire is the protection of human life,” Tidwell said.
Last month, the USDA’s office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into the nature of these recordings, why they were not reviewed earlier and why they were not made available as to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request from a media outlet. That investigation is ongoing.
Additionally, the Secretary of the USDA suggested that Congress ask the Government Accountability Office to review the actions of the agency in the initial attack on the Station Fire. Recently, the GAO has agreed to this investigation. “We welcome this review as it will supplement the IG’s work and will lead to continuous improvement in USFS firefighting efforts,” said Chief Tidwell.
“We have learned some valuable lessons from this catastrophic, tragic fire and will continue to do so,” Chief Tidwell continued. “And we are a better fire fighting organization today than we were last year. While no operation is perfect, I am convinced that the men and women of the Forest Service did their jobs the best they could and I look forward to the results of these investigations.”
The Forest Service has already implemented several changes as a result of lessons learned from the Station Fire, including improved record-keeping of asset requests, clear instructions for requests for non-Forest Service assets and a plan for greater clearance for at-risk structures.
The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to State and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.