Aerial expert's report on L.A. County's biggest wildfire flies in the face of official review
As Capt. Perri Hall watched helplessly, a blaze that had appeared containable erupted into the devastating Station fire. A report by Hall, obtained by The Times, contradicts key assertions by the U.S. Forest Service about its response to last summer's disaster.
At 8:07 a.m., thick smoke blankets the sky as fire crews try try to contain the flames. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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."