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Aerial expert's report on L.A. County's biggest wildfire flies in the face of official review

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Just after first light, a tactical observation plane took off from its old military base in Hemet for an urgent mission above the cathedral peaks of the Angeles National Forest.

The two-man crew had been deployed to direct an air assault on the few acres of brush still burning on Day 2 of last summer's Station fire, which had been nearly contained the evening before.

As the crew prepared for the arrival of three or more air tankers, conditions appeared good for knocking the blaze down once and for all. Winds were calm, and the sun had yet to rise above the pine-crowned mountaintops to heat the thick carpet of chaparral where the fire had flared overnight.

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.

Hall's account of Day 2, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, contradicts key assertions by the Forest Service about its response to the fire. Hall wrote the 1,000-word report soon after the mission, out of frustration and anger at the Forest Service's failure to unleash a more aggressive aerial attack, according to people with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The captain's narrative challenges a leading conclusion of the Forest Service's official review of the fire: that an earlier aerial assault on Day 2 would have been ineffective because rough terrain would have prevented ground crews from finishing the job. Hall makes no mention of terrain problems, and it was his responsibility to determine whether the landscape was an impediment to aerial drops.

Despite Hall's expertise and bird's-eye perspective, the Forest Service review team never interviewed him, officials said. His plane had been assigned to the fire at the Forest Service's request.

Former Forest Service officials say Hall's account is crucial to any assessment of the firefight because it was his job to determine when and where aircraft should be used.

In the report, Hall describes how he planned to hit the flames quickly:

"I tried again to contact someone on the ground and [a Forest Service battalion chief] responded back to me. I ask if he had any crews on the fire below the road (eastside of highway) and advised him that if I can get some aircraft I was going to go to work direct as possible on it."

But he could not get the aircraft and watched helplessly as the blaze that had appeared so containable erupted into a disaster:

"As the sun came up from behind the ridge to the east the down canyon wind began to increase and started pushing this new fire parallel to the highway. It began to burn freely on both the north and south end."

Hall writes that a single water-dropping helicopter arrived around 8:15 a.m. — other records indicate it reached the blaze about 25 minutes earlier — but it was far from enough:

"The fire began a good run up a ridge perpendicular to the highway. This run resulted in the fire jumping the highway to the west, into an entirely new drainage south of the original fire from the day before."

The delay in the tanker deployment — one of the Forest Service's own commanders had requested three of the heavy ships about six hours before their scheduled 7 a.m. arrival — has been a central issue in government inquiries into the fire. One, a hearing of local House members convened by Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank), is set for Aug. 10.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson referred questions about Hall's account to the Forest Service because it was in charge of the operation that day. A Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., said he relayed questions to local officials for his agency, who did not respond.

The efforts of Hall and others to get aircraft to the fire are also chronicled on recordings of radio communications that the Forest Service provided to The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

On one recording, a Forest Service officer is heard calling at 3:10 a.m. for confirmation of a request made more than two hours earlier for three tankers and other aircraft to be over the blaze at 7 a.m. He is told that the order had been placed and that the Forest Service is "going to see at morning time if we can get [the aircraft] reassigned from the Morris" fire burning nearby.

At 6:49 a.m., on another recording, an officer asking about the lead plane is informed that it would "hold along with the tankers for now."

The Forest Service has blamed the tardy arrival of the tankers on the need for pilots to rest and a lack of available relief planes. But The Times has reported that according to federal records and state officials, the Forest Service failed to fill the order for tankers that its commander placed shortly before 1 a.m. on Day 2, even though Cal Fire had several of the planes available.

Former Forest Service officials say Hall's account and the recordings seem to confirm that a separate order for the Station fire tankers was never filled and that the agency had instead opted to wait for planes that had been used the day before on the Morris blaze. Those tankers did not begin taking off until after 8:40 a.m.

"The problem wasn't the lack of resources," said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser. "The problem was the lack of will to acquire the resources.... I don't see any real sense of urgency."

Meanwhile, as Hall's narrative continues, he pleads in vain for more planes and other support:

"I made three requests for the DC-10 (Tanker 910) … and all three were denied. I made two requests for a [helicopter coordinator to help manage the attack] with no fill."

The captain relates that when he landed for refueling, he walked into a dispatch center to press his case: "I told them again of the [fire's] potential and the need for more air tankers.

"When we returned to the fire that afternoon, it had doubled in size and was pushing 500-600 acres."

In the coming weeks, it would consume more than 160,000 acres.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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