Was Massive L.A.-Area Blaze Mismanaged?

California is breathing a sigh of relief after a powerful storm lost much of its punch Wednesday. It caused a few small mudslides overnight, but nothing on the scale some had predicted after wildfires left the soil ripe for them.

The greatest concern was about the area outside Los Angeles - hit by the massive Station fire, which began in late August and stretched well into September. It burned about 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters. And questions remain about whether it could have been averted, as CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes reports.

CBS News first met Cindy Pain just days after her home in the Angeles National Forest burned to the ground.

"I got my grandmother's necklace and my wedding ring and that's it," Pain said, sobbing.

But Pain was lucky compared to Julius Goff, who got trapped by the flames with another neighbor.

"We were crying. Both of us were crying," Goff said. Both thought they were going to die.

Goff was burned over half his body. He and many of his neighbors say firefighters missed the chance to douse the blaze early on.

"There was not one helicopter, not one airplane," he said.

Pain agreed. "No support whatsoever," she said. "We were just watching the canyon burn towards us."

The U.S. Forest Service was in charge of the firefight from day one and it appears they underestimated what they were up against. According to internal fire incident reports obtained by CBS News, less than 24 hours after the fire started, officials reduced the number of fire fighters on the ground from 231 1o 191.

They also slashed the aerial assault from five helicopters to three, even though the fire, while small, was burning in rugged terrain not accessible to ground crews.

Perhaps because "somebody's trying to save money," Goff said.

An internal Forest Service memo written three weeks before the fire reminded forest supervisors of "the requirement that fire resources be managed to ensure no deficits" and stressed that "overtime expenditures be minimized."

An official review of the station fire is now underway.

"We'll find out from the review why the judgments were made and I have no reason to believe at this point in time that it was a mistake in judgment," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

"What will happen next time?" Pain asked. "Will we be simply left to defend ourselves again?"

For now the U.S. Forest Service is defending itself, saying officials believed the fire was under control before they pulled back resources - an apparent miscalculation with an estimated $100 million price tag in firefighting expenses alone.
  • Sandra Hughes

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