Fiery Heritage: What We Haven't Learned from the Station Fire

The Station Fire rages in Acton | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We cannot stop talking about the 2009 Station Fire. With reason: when an arsonist ignited it on August 26th, we could not know that it would continue to burn until mid-October; that it would kill two valiant firefighters, torch upwards of 100 structures, and consume 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, blackening much of the San Gabriel Mountains; or that it would become the largest fire to date in Los Angeles County, and the most costly.

Its aftermath has been just as incendiary. Even as firefighters struggled to gain control of the blaze, even as its thick, dark smoke still churned skyward, criticism erupted. Why had it taken so long for the Forest Service to gain traction in the fight? What decisions had led to the grounding of the federal agency's air fleet in the crucial first night of the fire? Why, homeowners wondered, had they lost their homes--was it a result of command-and-control failures? And were communication glitches the reason why two LA County firefighters perished in a firestorm on Mt. Gleason?

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Ever since, the questions have been piling up (and the media has been piling on): Representative Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena) has been particularly persistent in his inquiries, holding a number of well-covered public hearings locally and in Washington, D. C. that probed the Forest Service's responses to the fire and its post-fire analyses of what went wrong; he pushed for a Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General-accounting of the federal agency's actions and inactions, which appeared in late 2011; and has been indefatigable in his calls for the USFS to update its policies governing night-time flying operations.

Schiff's prevailing hypothesis, which the LA Times and a host of other outfits have adopted, is that Forest Service incident commanders immediately should have thrown all mechanical and human resources at the Station Fire, and had they done so it would not have blown up to such immense, terrifying, and deadly proportions.

The fact that this fire blew up was someone's fault, and the blame for it lies squarely--solely--on the shoulders of the federal agency.

Although such after-the-fact interrogations are essential, and Rep. Schiff has been doing what an engaged and responsible public official should do on behalf of his constituency, there have been some troubling consequences to these inquiries that may complicate the future fire management on the public lands; these ramifications must be voiced if we are to have a full and accurate accounting of this particular conflagration and its impact on public policy.

Recall, for example, what happened the next summer when a trio of small fires popped up in Kern and Los Angeles counties. No sooner had the Bull, West, and Crown blazed forth then CalFire, the Forest Service, and local fire departments rushed as much personnel and equipment that they could muster to suppress them; thousands of firefighters, and squadrons of aircraft and bulldozers were dispatched put down the wind-driven grass fires.

Lesson learned, one could argue--and many did. But the massive show of strength (underscored by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's photo-op appearance at command headquarters for the West fire) deflected attention away from another set of questions that ought to have been raised in response to the quick marshalling of resources. As I wrote at the time:

Not all fires must be controlled; some are essential to maintain ecosystem health. Not all firefighting makes economic sense, either. Yes, the commitment to protect human life is non-negotiable, the swift punishment of arsonists is essential and the need for more funds to fireproof the wildland-urban interface is critical.

But it is also true that Californians and other Westerners must become a lot smarter about where they choose to live. If they decide to reside in fire zones, they need to learn how to safely inhabit those areas so as not to endanger the lives of those racing to their rescue.

In the immediate aftermath of the Station Fire, these cautionary insights have gone up in smoke. Now that fire has become so politicized, whenever and wherever sparks fly, a small army of firefighters will storm in and flame-retardant will rain down.

A new book makes this case much more fully. In Fire Management in the American West: Forest Politics and the Rise of Megafires, sociologist Mark Hudson challenges some of the uncritically accepted notions about the presence of massive fires like the Station; and upends other long-prevailing assumptions about the public's desire to compel fire managers ever-more vigorously to stamp out fire from lands wild and domesticated.

Most compelling is Hudson's critique of the idea--so favored by environmentalists, journalists, and politicians--that the Forest Service singularly culpable for the devastating fires that have scorched so many acres since World War Two.

Hudson does not doubt that the agency's robust fire-fighting infrastructure has contributed to the intensity of some recent conflagrations. He counters, however, that the usual extrapolation that its suppressive actions have been the spark to a thousand flames misses the larger point about who has had ultimate power over the nature of fire management in the United States.

"The project of eliminating fire from the woods and the 'blowback' of the increasing fire danger do not stem from the USFS as an isolated, highly autonomous body," Hudson argues. "Rather, their roots are found in the Forest Service's relationships with other, more powerful elements of society--the timber industry in particular."

The blunt "refusal of capital and its representatives and allies in the US Congress to allow the Forest Service access to key tools that would have greatly increased its institutional capacity for management" did not diminish the agency's managerial responsibilities. It increased them. Ever since the Progressive Era, the agency has been charged with producing board-feet of lumber and acre upon acre of green trees (unscorched, please!)--and to do so without the authority to practice landscape-scale management. As if what happens on abutting private lands has no impact on public lands.

Here's how his argument plays out locally: Southland residents, big-time developers, and their political minions demand that the Forest Service snuff out any and all fires on the Angeles, Los Padres, San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests. They'd be infuriated though if the federal agency had the power to halt construction of homes, condos, and resorts in the foothills or mountains.

A wide plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles during the Station Fire | Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

We want to live where we want to live, we want to wring wealth from the unfettered development of the urban-wildland interface, and we expect--as owners and builders--that the Forest Service will subsidize our desires in its role as the national Fire Service. We want free will, just not the responsibility that comes with it.

Note, therefore, that Rep. Schiff, his good constituency work aside, has not demanded of those he represents that they acknowledge their complicity in the Station's Fire furious run. Observe he has not admitted that the furor over that its (mis)management is an expression of our willful denial of the life-threatening implications of our decision to put down our roots inside the fire zone.

Until we can have an honest discussion about the formative role we play in generating the need for full-on fire suppression. Until we accept that our eagerness to throw other people's bodies, and a ton of water and fire retardant at every puff of smoke comes, in Hudson's words, at a "high cost to the healthy functioning of many forest ecosystems." Until we concede that our demand that the Forest Service's capitulate to capital and its consorts has forced it to become a manager of "perpetual crisis," further crippling its capacity to act--we will never resolve these many dilemmas of our own making. And unmaking.

For the Record: This piece originally stated that the Station Fire began on August 30th. It actually started on August 26th, which is reflected above.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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