Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Stop ’em when they’re small

I grew up at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. Those chapparal hills and forested canyons shaped my life, giving a kid who preferred the woods to the concrete a place to roam and dream. I came to Sisters seeking what I found there — without the sprawling metropolis next door.

Now much of that wonderland is destroyed, burnt literally to cinders by the horrific Station Fire last year. The hillsides above my brother’s home are barren and won’t recover in our lifetime. And many people lost their homes and some their very lives in a conflagration that was biblical in its intensity.

Perhaps it was inevitable. The area is a tinderbox; I’ve seen it burn before, though never this badly. But a story in the L.A. Times indicates that this catastrophe might have been averted if resources had been brought to bear early, before a fire everyone knew had deadly potential really got going.

Capt. Perri Hall, a veteran air attack officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who was over the blaze minutes before 7 a.m. on Aug. 27, radioed the U.S. Forest Service with the intention of bringing in the tankers, a lead plane and helicopters.

There was no answer.

"I made several attempts to contact someone on the ground … with no luck," Hall recounts in a report. "I then attempted to make contact with [the Angeles National Forest] on the command frequencies."

The minutes were passing.

"I finally was able to make contact … and ask for the lead plane to be started ASAP," he says. "They advise the lead plane would not be available until 0900 hours.

"I then ask to start any air tankers they had and again I was told nothing available until 0900-0930 hours. "I then ask if there were any heli-tankers available and if so get them started. Again I was told nothing available until 0930 hours.

"I gave them a quick report on conditions of 3-4 acres [burning] … with potential of a major fire."

That potential began turning into reality about an hour later. The fire jumped a critical defense line along Angeles Crest Highway and raced through the dried-out scrub and trees, becoming the biggest conflagration in Los Angeles County history. Two county firefighters were killed.

The scenario seems awfully familiar to folks in the Sisters Country. Hearken back to August 2006 — the Black Crater Fire (from The Nugget, August 8, 2006):

As firefighters are mopping up and reinforcing firelines, many in Sisters have begun asking why the fire wasn't stopped when it was 50 to 100 acres in size, before it became a threat to residential communities.

The answer is simple, but it's not straightforward: There weren't enough resources available.

Other fires in the region were given higher priority — until Black Crater stormed down the mountain and threatened Crossroads. Then it became the top priority in the nation and tankers, helicopters and ground crews poured in to battle the conflagration.

Everybody in the Sisters Country knew from the beginning that the lightning-sparked fire had serious potential.

"It's a terrible balancing act that has to be played," (Sisters District Ranger Bill) Anthony said (back in 2006). "We knew the situation — that if this fire was not stopped small, it was going to get big."

The local authorities quickly put in the request for resources. But, as Anthony explained:

Fighting fires is based on a complex prioritization system that weighs the threat from fires across the nation. Other than initial attack, resources are allocated on a regional and national basis. When there are a lot of fires burning, the resources available are often already committed and not available for other fires.

Obviously, there has to be some system of prioritization. But with repeated instances of fires of known potential growing from small and stoppable to massive and devastating, it seems the system is out of whack. Hindsight is 20/20, but we have enough history to have pretty good foresight, too. Nobody wants another Station Fire. What can we do to make sure that firefighters can maximize that narrow window of opportunity to catch a fire that has grown beyond a single tree and an acre of brush but has not yet taken off?

The temperatures are heating up and the grasses that thrived on our cool, wet spring are curing into fire fuel. There are thunderstorms in the forecast this week. If a strike turns into a blaze with the potential to grow into a major fire, will our local firefighters be able to access the resources to “stop it when it’s small” or will we have to wait — again — until we’re in real danger?

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Having witnessed the Station fire, actually being evacuated for a couple of days, and later the mudslide aftermath, this is literally a "close to home" issue. Stepping back now, especially in light of the information in the L.A. Times article, the penny-wise, pound-foolish way in which resources are allocated reeks of a fragmented bureaucracy where cooperation between and even within agencies is limited by competing budgets. Their wait and see policy is like telling police officers that they can't use deadly force if someone pulls a gun and aims it at them, and that they have to wait until they actually take fire to initiate fire. Invariably, there will be lots of times where the action is too late, and with lamentable consequences.

  2. Well said Jim. I am a part of the Red Cross Sisters Disaster Team and while we are prepared for the worst, no one wants to see it happen. I was also here during the Black Crater fire and often wondered why it was allowed to grow as it did. Of Course there were rumors that the firefighters wanted it to continue on because then they would get paid more. But, after seeing what they have to go through to fight the wildland fires, I refuse to believe that to be true. I have a tremendous respect for those that fight the fires and handle all the logistics, however I agree with you in that the way fires are classified and resources are allocated appears to be a result of not enough resources to handle multiple fires around the country.

  3. "I finally was able to make contact … and ask for the lead plane to be started ASAP," he says. "They advise the lead plane would not be available until 0900 hours.

  4. Well it appears this is quite well timed. Its seems like every fire we have and I have experienced 30 years worth, the same issues pop up time and time again. Anthony talks about "hindsight being 20/20" but Bill come on !! You all have been using that same excuse for years. The Rooster Rock fire will end up being just like the Black Crater fire, likely stopped early but bureaucracy kept that from happening. I love the excuse of "complex prioritization", it seems to work well in the area of rationalization but in the "real world" simply a "get 'er done attitude might work a whole lot better.

  5. Well said Anon 2