Thursday, September 3, 2009

LOS ANGELES | Months before it dispatched its famed firefighters to California’s historic inferno, the U.S. Forest Service was warned by its internal watchdog that it could not reliably decide which forests were most vulnerable to wildfires or take pre-emptive actions because it had failed to follow through on reforms it promised to make in 2006.

The April 3 warning from the Agriculture Department’s inspector general about a continued shortcoming in the Forest Service’s fire prevention program called “hazardous fuels reduction production” surfaced Wednesday as Forest Service officials acknowledged that the government agency failed to clear more than 1,500 acres of Angeles National Forest underbrush that it had been authorized to clear.

The U.S. Forest Service obtained permits to burn away undergrowth and brush on more than 1,700 acres, but had done so on just 193 acres, Forest Service resource officer Steve Bear told the Associated Press.

The letter from the inspector general’s office critiqued the Forest Service on its follow-up to the 2006 audit by the inspector general and said the service had failed to upgrade its information gathering, as had been recommended for its fire prevention program and promised by the service itself.

The Forest Service initially said it would have the IG’s recommendations in place by July 31, 2007, but missed that deadline.

In its April letter, the inspector general said the Forest Service needed to have the enhanced system in place before it started spending recovery act money on such fire prevention projects.

“We agreed and we have implemented the enhanced reporting system,” said Allison Stewart, national press spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

She did not immediately know when the reporting system was put into effect. It could not be determined whether any stimulus money or other anti-fire projects had been funded as a result of any post-April moves by the Forest Service.

The “fuels reduction” program required more detailed information on how well such fire prevention methods as performing controlled burns, removing dry underbrush and thinning forests worked, the IG said, adding that the Forest Service needed to break down results of the various anti-fire strategies by geographic region and in other ways.

The letter said that without more detailed information the Forest Service “risks not being able to identify and select those fuels projects which would provide the most benefits and reduce the greatest risks of damage from wildland fires.”

The “hazardous fuels reduction program” spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually trying to prevent or reduce forest fires by removing flammable material on which forest fires feed.

On Wednesday, higher humidity gave firefighters a slight reprieve in their efforts to quell the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the command center to congratulate crews for their work.

The principal fire, formally called the Station Fire, encompasses 140,150 acres, or nearly 220 square miles, 98 percent of which is on federal land in Angeles National Forest in the foothills north of the nation’s second-largest city. It was considered 28 percent contained Wednesday night.

Jody Noiron of the Forest Service said at a news conference that the cause of the Station Fire was under investigation, though human cause had not been ruled out.

Several congressmen and county and city officials representing the threatened areas also spoke at the morning news conference at Hansen Dam Park on Foothill Drive, the multiagency command center.

Besides criticism of the Forest Service clearance by Los Angeles city officials, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, noted that there could be problems in some wilderness bills, too, as well as too many restrictions on homeowners doing clearance. Mr. McKeon said he would work with Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, to address that.

“This brush was ready to explode,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district overlaps the forest. “We are working with federal and state agencies to protect property from potential flood damage and landslides and to assess any damage to the watershed. It’s imperative that the federal agencies implement common-sense policies to protect our properties.”

But Mr. Schwarzenegger also said people need to listen to fire agencies, do their own clearance and help themselves when fires arise.

“There comes a certain time when it’s time to get out,” he said.

Two areas were still under mandatory evacuation: parts of Alta Dena, southeast of the forest, and parts of Acton, along the northern perimeter. Five Red Cross shelters continued to operate, though some were quiet.

“People are glad to be going home,” said Sharon Christensen, a volunteer at the shelter in La Canada. #Others were in the La Crescenta, Palmdale, Santa Clarita and Tujunga neighborhoods.

Areas still threatened include the Mount Wilson Observatory, the San Gabriel Wilderness, and camping and equestrian areas immediately west and east of the forest.

The fires near the communities of La Crescenta and La Canada are considered contained. The fire is thought to have started in La Canada. The cause is under investigation.

More than 4,000 people from fire agencies across the country fought the flames, supported the crews or advised media Wednesday. Eight helicopters and nine helitankers operated, along with 11 air tankers. Sixty-four bulldozers were employed in the field, as well as 488 engines and 73 hand crews.

The fire has destroyed at least 62 homes and three commercial buildings. Two firefighters have been killed.

Chuck Neubauer reported from Washington.

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