Feds say cost concerns slowed Calif. fire response

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Concerns over firefighting costs slowed the U.S. Forest Service's initial response to last year's 250-square-mile Southern California wildfire that killed two firefighters and destroyed 89 homes, a federal panel said in a report.

The review conducted for the Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, cites a letter before the Station Fire instructing managers to hold down costs and, when appropriate, use USFS resources rather than requesting crews, aircraft and equipment from contractors and state and local agencies.

"The decision on the Station fire to initially order only federal personnel delayed arrival of critical resources," according to the "Large Cost Fire Review" obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Forest Service officials have insisted for a year that cost concerns never impeded the response. The fire broke out in Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26, 2009, and raged untamed for more than a month in mountains above Los Angeles' foothill suburbs.

The report was prepared for Tuesday's planned panel discussion in Pasadena on Station Fire strategy, which will be led by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Glendale.

The review, performed for the USDA by an outside contractor, was mostly favorable about the Forest Service's overall performance during the fire, the Times said.

Tom Harbour, head of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said he was unaware of specific findings in the report but suggested the conclusion about firefighting costs could be erroneous. All orders for crews, equipment and aircraft were filled during the first two days of the fire, he said.

One issue raised since the fire is whether an air attack could have begun about two hours earlier on the second day when the blaze was still small, perhaps by using state aircraft. The Times said, however, that the review did not go into detail on aircraft arrival or say whether aircraft were delayed due to cost concerns.

The Agriculture Department review also said the Forest Service decided to concentrate on protecting homes and the communications towers and observatory on Mount Wilson, rather than staging a sustained direct assault on the backcountry front spreading into Angeles National Forest.

The review found that this approach helped save more than $1 billion worth of property, the Times said.

Some former Forest Service officials, however, describe the review as a "smoking gun" that exposes flawed tactics employed early in the fire. The Forest Service should have mounted a swift and unrelenting effort to stop the blaze on all fronts, they said.

Don Feser, former fire chief for Angeles National Forest, said the inquiry indicates that the officials who led the attack "allowed the fire to run."

"No action was taken in terms of aggressive perimeter control," he said.

Troy Kurth, the agency's former fire prevention officer for California, said firefighters could have kept the blaze from exploding into the backcountry. Instead, "they let it burn one of the most valuable watersheds in the world," he said.