© a Quinn Martin production
Lots of you have been asking what you can do to help. This year's resolution is to affect change on The Angeles and take back OUR forest. I will have an online petition circulating soon. Thanks everybody.

I originally wanted to blog about my adventures in the San Gabriel Mountains. I have some good stories, like the time I took a donkey to Ralph's Supermarket. But then the Station Fire started. I realized that there is much that needs to be brought to the attention of the mountain going public. Most folks are kept in the dark about how the Angeles National Forest operates. I will raise issues that are important to me, which are hopefully important to all citizens, but if you have any suggestions for discussion here, I am willing.

Here's the big agenda: Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron. I've made a few smart remarks and cryptic comments about her. But now, with the backing of some knowledgeable and trusted friends, it is time for a concerted effort to have her removed from her post. Stay tuned for details. And if you have any information you would like to contribute, anonymously or not, email me at gregsweet4@yahoo.com

I will get to some of the stories, sooner or later. Also, I want to make it clear that I no longer work at Adams' Pack Station, that these words are my own, and that the pack station is not the source of my information - they don't want trouble.

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire. Where There's Smoke & Mirrors, There's Jody

On Saturday, November 14th, Paul Pringle wrote an article in the LA Times about the recently released internal review of the Station Fire. The review blames steep terrain for the expanse of the fire because it was too steep to allow firefighters in to cut lines. Paul's article quotes Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich as calling the findings a "whitewash". I will show how this whole thing nothing short of a cover-up.

The man in charge of the investigation, Forest Service Deputy Chief James Hubbard, said "The review looked at the fire through the commanders' eyes. Whether some other action could have changed things, we really didn't look at that." How ridiculous is that? Wasn't the whole idea to find out if some other action could have changed things? And the investigation team only interviewed a few select employees. Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron still has a gag order on the Angeles National Forest, and I guarantee the only people the team spoke with are those that Jody allowed to speak with them. I'm sure those that did speak had something to lose by telling the real story. They may have been partially to blame themselves, or Jody, as she so often does, may have threatened them with termination if they diverted from her script.

The review is available from the Angeles National Forest website here:

In case sombody gets the idea to move or remove it, I have put it up on File Den here:
http://www.fileden.com/files/2009/9/24/2583863/station-report-11-13- 2009.pdf

Safety Über Alles

Jody Noiron uses safety as an excuse for everything. Whenever she doesn't want to make a decision, or doesn't want the consequences of making a decision, or just doesn't want to be bothered, she shuts down the forest and forest operations, citing safety as the reason. And nobody wants to argue with people's safety. She also does this to make it look like she is doing something when she is really doing nothing. And in the case of the Station Fire, Jody used firefighter safety to make it sound like she did something when she actually did nothing.

Fighting fire is inherently a risky business. Firefighters accept the risks, and are disappointed when they are not allowed to do their job. No firefighter wants to get hurt, and they calculate the risks as situations arise. They know their abilities and their limits. The last thing they need is a paranoid supervisor with a crippling fear of being personally sued.

Steep Terrain

The review states that topography made it "impossible" to fight the Station Fire on it's second and third day (IMPOSSIBLE, mind you. This word is used several times). The front country of the San Gabriels is the third steepest mountain range in North America, next to the Eastern Sierra Nevada and the Grand Tetons. This geological fact is not likely to change in the near future. So is the Forest Service suggesting that we abandon fire suppression on the Angeles National Forest? Is it impossible to fight a fire here? Do they not fight fires in the Inyo National Forest because it is too steep there?

The area that they say was too steep to penetrate is in the Arroyo Seco drainage, just below the point of origin and where the fire crossed the Angeles Crest Highway. This area is no steeper than other areas that were protected in subsequent days and weeks. Mount Wilson ridge is some of the steepest terrain in the whole range, yet there were firefighters from other forests and other agencies crawling all over the mountain top, while the fire was burning below them and lighting backfires of their own. Bulldozers AND hand crews cut fire breaks along ridgelines above Altadena, Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, Monrovia... all as steep as, and some steeper than, the "impossible" ridges they mentioned.

So the steep excuse just doesn't wash.

The Cover Up

The review has several photos of fire in steep terrain with scary captions...

"Terrain below the Angeles Crest Highway is extremely rugged and steep."

"Active fire below the Angeles Crest Highway coupled with the topography make accessibility by ground crews impossible."

"Angeles National Forest has long history of firefighter fatalities, especially those that occurred when fire came from below the firefighters."

"Firefighters attempting to access points below the Highway would be in an upslope position with respect to fire below them—safety zones and escape routes could not be established."

"Fire above and below Angeles Crest Highway on August 27 after spot fire occurred."

These photos are designed to make you think that nothing could have been done. In fact, that's what the review tells us. The review states: "As the photographs indicate, topographical conditions in this area are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to traverse without a high degree of exposure to hazard. In addition to the hazards of rolling rocks and unstable footing, firefighters attempting to access points below the Highway would be in an upslope position with respect to fire below them and in brush conditions with extremely limited or no visibility. In these conditions, safety zones and escape routes could not be established." But this is a ruse. First of all, wildland firefighters are trained to deal with rolling rocks and unstable footing - THAT'S WHAT THEY DO! Ask any of the men and women on the crews if they are afraid to or incapable of walking a ridgeline, see what they say. Second, most of the photos conveniently leave out out the trails, roads and existing fire breaks around the area where the fire crossed the highway into the Arroyo Seco. I will show and tell you what it really looks like, and supply some historical information that will make you question the characterization of "impossible to access".

This first Google Earth image comes from the review. It shows the fire perimeters in the first three days, the point of origin, and where the fire crossed the highway. One can see the fire roads and CCC Ridge, but it is zoomed out too much to tell the whole truth...

Here is the crucial area as I captured it (click to enlarge)...

You can see Dark Canyon Road that goes right into the Arroyo Seco from the Angeles Crest Highway and passes below the spot where the fire jumped the highway. In all fairness, Dark Canyon Road has not been maintained in a very long time. But that brings at least two questions to mind. 1) Why hasn't the road been maintained? This is not an ecologically sensitive area. 2) Why couldn't crews have hiked down the road bed from the end of CCC Ridge to catch the fire as it came down the "impossible" ridge? Hikers use this route all the time. There are employees currently working on the Angeles that used to drive pickup trucks down Dark Canyon Road so it is not that long abandoned. 3) How about taking a bulldozer down the old road? They cut right through rock and vegetation where there was no prior road, it should have been no problem to run one down Dark Canyon road. It would have a) extended the firebreak on CCC Ridge, b) provided quick access into the Arroyo Seco from the north and c) finally cleared a vital road that had gone neglected. Notice Dark Canyon. This has been recorded as an escape route of the infamous bandit Tiburchio Vasquez, and was utilized by his gang and him on horseback the day he was finally captured. How impossible could Dark Canyon be for well-trained firefighters when a herd of galloping horses managed to negotiate it? Also notice the long, gentle ridge that forms the canyon's north wall - easily hiked.

Now let's look at the area of which the review has images labeled "no access" (click to enlarge)...

The reviewers placed one of those yellow Google Earth push-pins on a ridgeline and labeled it "no access". This very same ridge has a trail along the top that is used by Edison to maintain the high-tension power lines and do fire clearance around the two towers at the end of the ridge. No access? Edison accesses it all the time. And how did the towers get there? It probably would not have been safe to cut a line along the last couple hundred feet where the ridge meets the stream, but they could have gotten most of it. This may not have been necessary or a good use time, considering that the next ridge to the north, CCC Ridge, already has a firebreak on it and there were no structures between, but the point is that they are clearly trying to deceive us. On the other hand, it may have kept the fire out of Dark Canyon. Even before the Station Fire, I knew the last time this area had burned was the Woodwardia Fire in '58 or '59, and that Dark Canyon has a lot of decadent growth that could lead the fire right into Big Tujunga. If I knew that, shouldn't have someone in the Forest Service have known this? Keep in mind that the review repeatedly mentions how dangerous it is for firefighters to have the fire approach them from below. Well, when firefighters were on the highway, the fire was moving downhill away from them. However, it probably doesn't do much good to chase a fire, better to be on the other side of it so that they can have the fire meet with a fuel/fire break, or a backfire. The Forest Service says, and offers visual "proof", that there was no way to get at the downhill side of the fire, but you can see that that is just not true.

Remember that this flank of the fire didn't really get going until it got into the bottom of the Arroyo Seco where it headed up stream to Red Box Saddle and branched off into Bear Canyon, creating two fronts on their way to Mount Wilson. It should have been a priority to stop it before that happened. This is not hindsight on my part, I wrote on the Altadena Blog on day three that this was a possibility. Again, if I knew that... Wind was not a factor and there are no less than three trails from three directions to access the canyon bottom. The fire would have been above the fire fighters, slowly backing down the hill above them while they cut lines. I'm not suggesting without a doubt that the hand crews alone would have stopped the fire here, even though the "CCC Boys" did it in the 1920's Brown Mountain Fire, but another of the Forest Service's ridiculous excuses is that the helicopters would not have been effective without hand crews on the ground, and you can see by the aerial shots that hiking in is no problem. Also, there were several retreat options.

This is a photo of the area just downstream from the above photo (see Twin Canyon for reference - click to enlarge)...

You can see that the access road from JPL ends at the canyon DIRECTLY BELOW the ranger station for which the fire was named. This used to be a stage coach line from Devil's Gate to Oakwilde. Granted, one can't drive all the way now, because of the debris dam, but one can drive to below where the fire crossed the road. Also below is a picnic area and a popular hiking trail. At the bottom of the Brown and Twin Canyons, where the fire crossed the road, there is a broad gravely wash with nothing but a few shrubby willows and a perennial stream. There are lightweight gas-powered water pumps available that could have been used to supply hoses brought in on "Tahoe packs" (click inset). This illustrates just how close the Station Fire was to the ranger station when it started, and just how much infrastructure there is in the area where the fire crossed into the Arroyo Seco; infrastructure that they know about and are hiding in the review.

Here's another that shows the proximity of Brown Mountain Fire Road to the area where the fire crossed the road and got into the Arroyo Seco and tributaries (click to enlarge)...

Note the trail down and the gentle ridge where a bulldozer and hand crews could have cut a fire break all the way into the canyon. There is a safety zone in the gravely wash and a helipad above for rescue or supply purposes. It seems safe to say the if it is called a fire road, it's intention was to be used to fight fires.

I could go on, but I hope you have gotten the point that this fire could have been fought with hand crews and helicopters on the second day. So even if we were to buy the assertion that the helicopters would not have done any good without crews on the ground, we see that it was possible to get crews below the fire to cut lines. But, of course, we know that the helicopter comment is absurd. The benefit of water-dropping helicopters is that they can douse fires where crews cannot hike and, in fact, we watched them do so on the third day, when the fire had gotten into more remote areas and when the smoke was much thicker than on day two.

This review was a smokescreen (pun intended) and only attempted to answer one question - what happened on the second day? - and attempted to dismiss the internal memo ordering a refusal of cooperation with other agencies. Still on my mind are...
  • When the fire was still very small, on the first day, and had not made a run for the Arroyo Seco or Mt. Lukens, why were helicopters not ordered immediately? They were already in the air for the Morris Fire across town.
  • Why doesn't Forest Service allow helicopters to fly at night? LA County is happy to do it, and I personally witnessed them put out a small fire with a helicopter at Midnight.
  • Why was there no defense of Big Tujunga? This canyon is a broad, gravely flood plain and there were no winds. Lines should have been cut and back fires should have been lit to protect structures, yet by most accounts there was absolutely no action taken.
  • Why were firefighters ordered to abandon Chilao, even though they insisted to supervisors that they could defend it? This decision cost CalTrans a large maintenance facility with employee housing.
  • Who ordered Mount Wilson back fires by helicopter pellet drop? The Station Fire had no intention of burning up the steep back side of the ridge and if the Angeles had any experienced personnel left, they would have known this. The fires that smoldered in inaccessible areas for weeks around the observatory were caused by incendiary devices.
  • Who ordered firefighters not to defend Big Santa Anita Canyon if the fire had entered it? This FACT was recently reaffirmed by ANF Engine 17.
  • Why was the containment kept at 98% for so long? Was it because the emergency closure order expired at 100%? Did this give Jody enough time to come up with her current closure order that again cites safety as the reason and is very loosely based on any actual authority she may have?
  • Why does the Angeles National Forest have such a hard time retaining firefighters? Why do all of the ANF employees hate Supervisor Noiron?


Bellis said...

Greg,I very much appreciate this post. The Station Fire burnt the area of forest I hiked in almost every day - people living further to the east still have their Echo Mountain and Chantry Flat, but we've lost the entire Gabrielino trail up the Arroyo (heck, we're not even allowed past the bridge at JPL, even though the fire only got as far as the first bridge after Teddy's Outpost), Millard Canyon, the Sunset trail, and so much more.
The Station the fire takes its name from was, ironically, a FIRE station - I've often hiked past the fire trucks and hoses - and the firemen would surely have been very familiar with the local terrain and trails. Were they listened to?

I'd be interested to hear your views on LA County's take on the fire, which was, I think, critical of the USFS response.

pasadenaadjacent.com said...

I second Bellis on this. Your on an inside track. When I talk with rangers they start giving me the chaparral lecture about the necessary of burning. Gee, haven't heard that one before.

I've always done my walking in the late afternoons. Driving east is a complete pain. When I look up Lake and see EVERYTHING east is gone, I want answers. I too walk that fire road behind the station. Several training trails are there. Not sure of the area your talking about exactly but I'm well aware of the trail that went down to Grizzly flats (sadly, it was recovering after a burn back in the 70's). I've always thought this was the pass the bandit was on. I think that his horse slipped and broke it's leg though. But still...

pasadenaadjacent.com said...

I mean looking west from Lake

Bob.com said...

We lost several structures due to the fire as well as destroying our property's trees, etc. I am hoping there will be a congressional independent investigation into the fire and the Forestry's report. It is obvious someone is not telling the truth at the Forest Service.

We have 2 websites we set up to help get to the bottom of this.

One is at http://www.ussenate.com/ and the other is at http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#/group.php?gid=153880247756.