Image: Firefighter looks for hot spots
Richard Vogel  /  AP
A firefighter checks for any smoldering embers in an area of the Angeles National Forest near Sunland, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 9/2/2009 6:42:49 PM ET 2009-09-02T22:42:49

Federal authorities failed to follow through on plans earlier this year to burn away highly flammable brush in a forest on the edge of Los Angeles to avoid the very kind of wildfire now raging there, The Associated Press has learned.

The U.S. Forest Service said that months before the huge blaze erupted, it obtained permits to burn away the undergrowth on more than 1,700 acres of the Angeles National Forest. But just 193 acres had been cleared by the time the fire broke out, the agency said.

The agency defended its efforts, saying weather, wind and environmental rules tightly limit how often these "prescribed burns" can be conducted.

Also, Forest Service resource officer Steve Bear said crews using machinery and hand tools managed to trim 5,000 acres in the forest this year before the money ran out.

Could more have been done to clear tinder-dry hillsides and canyons?

"We don't necessarily disagree with that," Bear said. "We weren't able to complete what we wanted to do."

Lawmaker blasts environmentalists
Some critics suggested that protests from environmentalists contributed to the disaster, which came after the brush was allowed to build up for as much as 40 years.

"This brush was ready to explode," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district overlaps the forest. "The environmentalists have gone to the extreme to prevent controlled burns, and as a result we have this catastrophe today."

Prescribed burns are intended to protect homes and lives by eliminating fuel that can cause explosive wildfires. The wildfire that has blackened 140,000 acres — or nearly 219 square miles — in the forest over the past week has been fed by the kind of tinder-dry vegetation that prescribed burns are designed to safely devour.

The blaze has destroyed more than five dozen buildings, killed two firefighters and forced thousands of people to flee. Firefighters reported modest progress Wednesday as investigators said the blaze was human-caused, though it was not clear exactly how the fire started or whether it was accidental or arson.

Figures from the California's South Coast Air Quality Management District suggested even less was protectively burned. The agency said it granted seven permits sought by the Forest Service to conduct prescribed burns on 2,748 acres in the forest this year. The agency reviews such requests to ensure air quality in the often-smoggy Los Angeles area will not be worsened by smoke from intentional fires. But records show only 12.8 acres burned.

Four of the permits, totaling 1,257 acres, were granted in areas involved in the wildfire, according to the air quality agency.

But the Forest Service disputed those figures. Bear said the plan was to burn 1,748 acres, and 193 were cleared.

Government firefighters set thousands of blazes each year to reduce the wildfire risk in overgrown forests and grasslands around the nation. Prescribed burns can also improve overall forest health and increase forage for wildlife.

Obtaining the necessary permits is a complicated process, and such efforts often draw protests from environmentalists.

Calls to the Sierra Club for comment were not immediately returned.

Prescribed burns carry risks
Setting pre-emptive fires can be especially risky near heavily populated urban areas like Los Angeles because of the danger of flames burning out of control. Last month, a 90-acre prescribed burn near Foresta, on the edge of Yosemite National Park, jumped fire lines and consumed more than 7 square miles in the park.

On Tuesday, Angeles National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron defended his employees' efforts to reduce the fire risk. "The Angeles Forest has been pretty aggressive about implementing fuels-reduction projects with the funds we are given," she said.

Los Angeles fire Capt. Steve Ruda said that pre-emptive fires were used more frequently in the region in the 1980s. But a growing backcountry population and increasingly complicated environmental rules have made them less frequent.

Conducting a prescribed burn requires a detailed study of wind, terrain, temperature and humidity and reviews by a host of government entities, including air-quality regulators.

Max Moritz, co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California at Berkeley, said there is wide discussion about the need to do more prescribed burns to reduce the fire hazard. But "you have this difficult needle you have to thread to find the right place, the right conditions, to pull it off," Moritz said.

Ultimately, he said, the answer is to stop building in fire-prone areas instead of spending huge sums on firefighting.

Steve Brink, a vice president with the California Forestry Association, an industry group, said as many as 8 million acres of national forest in California are overgrown and at risk of wildfire. He said that too few days provide the conditions necessary for larger, prescribed burns and that the Forest Service needs to speed up programs to thin forests, largely by machine.

"Special interest groups that don't want them to do it have appeals and litigation through the courts to stall or stop any project they wish. Consequently, the Forest Service is not able to put a dent in the problem," Brink said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Feeling the burn

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