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I started this blog because of fire, and I’m picking it up again for the same reason. This time it’s the Station Fire. What, you expect me to just stand by while once again terrible things happen in LA because the city can’t take care of the Fire Department? I live in LA proper, and at this moment I can see over 20 separate fire peaks blazing in 5 different areas in the San Gabriel Mountains, La Canada, and whatever mountains and hills are out that way. And this has been happening for 4 days now. Even worse,  is that 2 firemen were killed as their truck rolled over near Acton.

“This accident is tragic,” Bryant said, choking up as he spoke Sunday evening. “This is a very difficult time for L.A. County Fire Department and the men and women that serve day in, day out.”

It certainly is.

p1020350s.jpgHave you ever heard the expression, “fire season” in LA? [/sarcasm] How long does it last now, 5 or 9 months? It’s not new. It’s not occasional, like an earthquake. It’s EVERY F-ING YEAR. So you’d think LA city and county would get prepared, wouldn’t you? But no. Same old, same old, year after year. Can you remember a year when anyone reported, gee, the LAFD is getting better and better at putting out wildfires? No, because it isn’t.

It’s not the fault of the brave firefighters that we all admire so much. It’s the fault of the LAFD headquarters, and either they’re not asking for, or not getting, the equipment they need. It’s so sad. It’s only money, after all.

I’m not a firefighting expert, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that normal fire trucks just might have a tough time navigating steep hills or tricky small roads. When I investigated the Griffith Park Fire 2 years ago I quickly discovered through my research, interviews, and tips from firefighters that the Los Angeles Fire Department just doesn’t have the trucks to fight wildfires effectively. Please reread this. I don’t mean the firefighters can’t take care of city fires. They are great, really great, can’t ask for better at that. I mean wildfires, anything offroad and actually anything just yards from the beaten path.

p1020316s.jpgFrom the Dept of the Interior: Fire Engine Ratings.  It’s a simple orderly list from Type 1 to Type 7 with various size tanks and crew, and engines that get more rugged by the number. What they call Wildland Engines don’t start until Type 3, and go up to Type 7.

The LAFD has only OES type 1 trucks, nothing higher. This is according to Officer Brian Humphrey, the esteemed and vigilant fireman who runs the LAFD website, and according to half a dozen other firemen I talked with. Officer Humphries commented last year:

I look forward to your visit with the staff at Battalion 5 Headquarters, and if possible, hope to get you out in the hills of Griffith Park aboard one of those 15 (for indeed that is how many you paid for) LAFD Brush Patrols. :)

While no single vehicle is going to answer all of the many challenges that face a crew on a wildfire, I think you’d be surprised at how these nimble and highly affordable ‘quick attack’ vehicles are able to spryly respond across the diverse geography of the Santa Monica Mountains. We’d love to have more, bigger, better faster of everything the taxpayers so generously provide us to with, but it is not in our financial realm.

If I were in charge, we’d have 20 Helitankers year round… but I digress :)

I talked with several firemen last year that say the LAFD  has only 4 Brush patrols:

 I talked with Captain Comfort, in the hydrant unit… He said in a wildland situation (in any hilly area without roads) “we don’t chase fires, we just contain it.” And since they don’t have any large off-road fire trucks, their range is limited to the length of the hoses: only 300 to 500 feet! He added that the longer the hose, the more loss of water pressure, too. There are a limited number of small Brush Patrol trucks (4), used in Red Flag situations, that are off-road, and able to go deep, but obviously interior areas are mostly dependent on helicopters for big firefighting.

In any case, all the fire departments agree that Los Angeles has only Type 1 trucks!

The California OES bought 5 new engines for the state under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (There‘s no date for this event, but it looks like it’s 2007.) These trucks cost about $250,000, less than the price of one average home in LA. None of the trucks went to the LAFD, however.

The new engines, costing $250,000 each, feature modern radios, an automatic transmission and other features that meet National Fire Protection Association standards. The vehicles, which qualify as Type 3 Light Urban Search and Rescue apparatus (USRA), are equipped with a shorter wheel base, allowing them to be used in wildland-urban interface fires as well as earthquakes and other emergencies.

800px-firetruck_wildland_ty.jpgType 6 truck from Colorado on Wiki.

I reported the discrepancy between what transportation the LAFD actually had in LA, and what they SHOULD have to fight forest fires in our urban forests and right outside the city, before, of course, over 2 years ago, and again last year.

I wrote more about the Griffith Park 2007 fire than any other media in print or online, including the LA Times. I called the LAFD, investigated truck types, called other fire agencies, called our only wildlife worker in LA (shameful to have just one), called and queried the rangers, city officials, biologists, consultants, state and county departments, etc.  Then Dave Gardetta wrote an article about the fire in November 2007 for Los Angeles Magazine (no online link), confirming all my facts, and strangely enough, hitting all the same beats. Hmm. Gosh, it’s almost as though he got the angle – and all the facts – from me! Huh! He also questioned the Fire Department’s strategy, and strategic placement of fire equipment, and even their trucks as being unfit for the job. (Then he wrote an opinion on arsonists in the LA Times last year, as an “expert,” because of his article in the magazine.) Nothing has changed in the LAFD.

You’ve seen the horrific pictures and heard the news of this week’s Station Fire in Angeles Forest – that it’s too smoky for helicopters to make many water drops, and the firefighters are concentrating on backfires and controlled burns, just as Captain Comfort explained their strategy above. Surely, starting fires to stop fires is a last resort. Who knows how many of these various fires could be snuffed out early on, with the right firefighting water tanks? For several days, the LAFD has been describing it as between 0% and 5% contained, even with all the kind aid from other communities. The Times said about the Angeles National Forest fire this week:

More than 2,800 fire personnel from around the state have converged to battle the Station fire, along with 12 helicopters and eight air tankers.

Gratitude is certainly in order. Yet I gotta ask, could the fire have been handled better with the right equipment? Even if it was only a small percentage better, that victory would save wildlands. 18 houses lost so far, and 2 firefighter’s lives, Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones. (And perhaps this is insensitive of me to point out, but they were driving a fire engine on a winding mountain road, which apparently flipped down a cliff. If they had been driving a fire engine made for wildlands, might their lives have been saved?)

I do editorial and political cartoons for Slate now, which is the main reason I haven’t posted here in so long. For the first time in my cartoonist’s career, I get called names, lots of names.  Last week one reader called me “a typical Godless liberal.” He got at least one of those names wrong; I am God-fearing, and have been praying for the firefighters, people whose homes were lost, the 2 men, and all the thousands of animals and birds needlessly killed, for several days. (The LA Times writes: “small rodents overcome by smoke lay dead on the ground.” Rodents? Are you a godless word-slinger?)  I know that God is first. But I think there’s some hard work to be done by the LAFD to make them the powerful, protective force that Los Angeles deserves.

The comparatively low price of these trucks vs the cost of houses, diminishing parkland, innocent animals lost, and priceless human lives reminds me of that movie a few years ago. What was the name of it? The makers of the Pinto knew that the engine tended to catch on fire in a crash. They weighed the price of being sued for death and accidents vs the price of fixing the engines. They didn’t fix the engines. People died.

Is the state, the city, the county, the laid-back LAFD like that car company? I was kind of hoping the story of the LA Wildfires Station Fire, in 2009, would have a happier ending.

p1020359s.jpg

4 Responses to “LAFD Fail in the Station Fire.”

  1. Ms. Barstow,

    I and my fellow firefighters appreciate your continued interest in Southern California’s wildfires and their impact on wildlife, especially those blazes that are near our beloved City of Los Angeles.

    I do stress near, as the ‘Station Wildfire’, with *very* limited exception, stayed outside our City of Los Angeles jurisdiction.

    While the media oft-reported ‘LAFD’ – and our agency did commit mutual aid resources, the bulk of the fire remains (as of this writing) in Forest Service lands within the County [emphasis] of Los Angeles. As such, many of your strategic questions regarding the Station Fire may best be directed to the USFS & LA County Fire Departments, and not the LAFD.

    While everyone is entitled to their opinion – and some of yours are quite valid, I do hope that someday I can adequately convey that ‘Wings & Wheels’ don’t extinguish fires like these, firefighters do. :)

    Though someone may have in the past conveyed (mistakenly I believe), that one type of apparatus or another would be a ‘silver bullet’, the truth remains that it takes a myriad of skilled personnel and equipment to battle wildfires, no two of which are alike, even in our City.

    While I could come up with a long list of things we’d love to have at the LAFD to better serve you in a multitude of situations (including more helicopters, bulldozers, hand crews for wildfires), the truth remains that even an armada of the Type 3 apparatus you fondly mention would not take the place of the infantry and air force needed to quell this blaze, and remain outside our financial reach to acquire, staff and deply. Even if our desires were ‘less than the cost of a single suburban home’, policymakers have made it clear that funds are limited if not non-existent for much of what we hope for.

    Ms. Barstow, my year-old invitation for you to visit with one of our Battalion Chief’s remains, as does my personal desire to expose you to one of the 15 (and I do officially stand by that number) LAFD Brush Patrol units, so that you can see what we DO have.

    With the peak of fire season soon to commence, I do hope that any continued concerns that you and others hold will be conveyed forthwith to your elected leaders, and not aimed ambiguously at “LAFD Headquarters”.

    In closing, I want to assure you that we do love small animals and wildlife, and were there to be a singular and effective tool to help us in protecting then while battling fire, our Department, employee organizations and others would be clamoring for same.

    Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

    Brian Humphrey
    Firefighter/Specialist
    Public Service Officer
    Los Angeles Fire Department

  2. Dear Officer Humphrey:

    You are correct, I should have addressed this to the Fire Chief. However, I read that he retired. So I went to lafd.org. No info there on the Chief’s name. Nothing I found in your blog. Called 311 and listened to Mayor V’s retarded and self-serving message, in both English and Spanish, (of course) and an operator transferred me to what he said was the Fire Chief. No one answered, just a recording. The Chief’s name was not mentioned in that.

    So, I addressed this toward the general LAFD. I also have calls in to the US Forestry division and am eagerly awaiting their replies. I also talked with the LA County Department, who also has ONLY Type 1 trucks, except for one in Catalina…but only LAFD protects LA and Griffith Park.

    Trust me, our “elected leaders” will get this message, as well. :)

    As always, your measured response is highly appreciated, Officer. And I promise – I will visit your station within the next few months!

  3. PS – My color cartoon on the fire will be in Daily News editorial page tomorrow, Friday.

  4. Steve says:

    Donna,
    Again, like most people you don’t know what it takes to attack and put out a brush fire. Others from other agencies may do things differently, but different doesn’t mean it is right or wrong. The LAFD has to staff for day to day operations and plan for other events. While brush fires are on the news, the day to day firefighting is done by Type 1 engines. I am sure the Department would love to staff Type 3 engines and to fully staff the Brush Patrols, have a full staffed and functional hand crew etc etc etc..The fact is the funds are not there to do that.

    Now for the protection of brush and the cute lil critters. It is natural for the brush to burn off now and then. The saving of 50 years of growth has proven to be the wrong thing. Burn offs are important to plant life and a natural event. A balance has to be found in fighting the brush fires and saving the homes that are in the interface area.

    Has much as the brush fires seem spectacular and huge on tv, it is a small percentage of LAFD’s day to day operations.