Officials: Williams Fire was sparked by parked car ByBrian Day, SGVN
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST - Federal fire investigators confirmed over the weekend that, as initially suspected, the Williams Fire was sparked by a parked car.
The wildfire ignited shortly after 2 p.m. Sept. 2 near Camp Williams, along East Fork Road, and grew to 4,192 acres before hundreds of firefighters fully contained it Tuesday, officials said. About 315 personnel continue to monitor and "mop up" the largely inactive fire.
It was sparked by a car parked on tall grass, ANF Supervisor Nathan Judy said. The hot undercarriage of the car ignited the grass, which set the car ablaze and ignited what what later become known as the Williams Fire. The fire spread quickly uphill.
"(The car) was parked right next to a steep hillside in a canyon," Judy said.
Officials have been aware of the possibility a car sparked the fire since the day it first erupted and grew to over 1,000 acres.
Sheriff's deputies initially responded to a report of a car fire when they encountered the wildfire. A tow truck was seen removing a badly charred car from the forest during the first day of the incident.
The car belonged to a forest visitor, Judy said, and it will be up to prosecutors to determine whether any criminal charges will be filed in connection with the fire.
In the meantime, Judy described the official determination of the cause as a "teachable moment," and advised forest visitors to be mindful of where they park their cars, avoiding flammable materials such as tall grasses.
No structures were damaged by the Williams fire, and the only injuries reported were a handful of heat-related issues experienced by firefighters.
Officials said the cost of fighting the Williams Fire exceeded $8 million.
Williams Fire costing nearly $9 million; 100 percent contained By Brenda Gazzar, SGVN
The Williams Fire that erupted above Glendora in the Angeles National Forest and burned more than 4,190 acres since Sept. 2 has cost nearly $9 million to fight so far, forest officials said.
The fire's estimated cost reached $8.7 million and that is without the use of more expensive nighttime aerial helicopter drops, officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. Forest Service decided not to use nighttime drops from the Los Angeles County Fire Department because it determined they were not needed.
Higher humidity, freak rain storms and a continuous attack from a maximum of 1,000 firefighters and hand crews plus air tankers and helicopters has resulted in 100 percent containment of the fire Tuesday night, said Nathan Judy, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. About 327 personnel remained on the fire Tuesday, he said.
Fire crews will continue mopping up and monitoring for any smoke within the fire perimeter.
The fire has not been actively burning for several days but firefighters continued Tuesday to forge a line around the fire in steep, hard-to-reach terrain west of Mount Baldy and south of Angeles Crest Highway, Judy said.
Crews were pulled off the fire Sunday and Monday because of thunderstorms in the area, with some lightning strikes as close as one mile away, forest officials said.
The unified command team, which has managed the operation of the fire, will be disbanding Wednesday and management of the fire will be handedover to a district of the Angeles National Forest, Judy said.
Fifteen firefighters have sustained minor injuries, including heat exhaustion and twisted ankles, Judy said.
About 33 percent of the fire's costs have been for aircraft expenses, while another 27 percent are for hand crews. Other expenses include camp support, personnel, equipment and supplies, Judy said.
The Williams Fire forced the evacuation of some 100 permanent residents along the East Fork on Sept. 2, including many from a mobile home park called Camp Williams, near where the fire started. At least 10,000 recreational day users throughout San Gabriel Canyon were evacuated on Labor Day, the busiest day of the year for recreation, he said.
The canyon remained closed Tuesday and was only open to permanent residents.
Highway 39 remained closed, along with Glendora Mountain Road and Glendora Ridge Road.
Decision to not use nighttime helicopter water drops on Williams Fire criticized By Steve Scauzillo, SGVN
Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies Matthew Bound, left, and Gabriel Duran watch as wildfire burns above Camp Williams in the Angeles National Forest near Glendora, Calif., on Tuesday night, Sept. 3, 2012. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)
After being criticized for not using aerial night helicopter flights to fight the devastating Station Fire in 2009, three weeks ago the U.S. Forest Service announced it would do so for future fires, signing agreements with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to use county-trained helicopter pilots who fly at night.
But when the Williams Fire erupted in the Angeles National Forest on Sept. 2 and quickly spread into a 4,180-acre blaze, the federal agency in charge of fighting the fire once again chose not to call in night-flying helicopters as part of its air attack.
"They looked at that the first night when there were structures threatened and determined they didn't need that," said Mark Nunez, deputy incident commander on the fire for the Forest Service.
Critics of the Forest Service's response to the Station Fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and killed two L.A. County firefighters are questioning why the Forest Service didn't call on L.A. County Fire to fly night runs on this most recent blaze.
"I think it would've made a lot of sense from a public relations standpoint to see the county do that on this fire, because they didn't do it on the Station Fire," said Mike Rogers, a retired fire service officer and one-time forest supervisor of the Angeles National Forest with the U.S. Forest Service.
A nighttime drop is the best time to put out a fire, he said.
"There is an advantage (to nighttime water drops). Fires tend to lay down as the sun sets. The fire is much easier to drop on at night. There is not that much of a flaming front. You can make big gains," Rogers said.
Keeping helicopters dropping water on a wildfire 24 hours a day, means fire suppression resources are not interrupted, other experts said.
"You aren't going to lose resources because it is nighttime," said Battalion Chief Mark Savage, with L.A. County Fire.
Unlike the U.S. Forest Service, L.A. County fire routinely keeps helicopters flying at night if fire conditions call for it, Savage said. On July 3, night-flying helicopters helped put out a stubborn grass blaze near Palmdale, he said.
"We've been using our helicopters at night for several years. I remember being at the Old Topanga Fire in 1993 and we were having our helicopters dropping at night," he said.
The Williams Fire forced the evacuation of about 1,100 permanent forest residents and overnight campers, many from Camp Williams and others from a rehabilitation facility along the East Fork, a popular recreation area, according to county fire officials. Thousands of other day hikers and picnickers were also evacuated from San Gabriel Canyon.
The canyon was closed to the public during Labor Day, the busiest day of the year for recreation. It remained closed to the public throughout this weekend.
Still, despite water-dropping helicopters being grounded at night, the Forest Service's approach to the Williams Fire seemed to be effected. Less than a week after it started, firefighters had it nearly three-quarters contained.
No structures were burned and only minor injuries to about eight firefighters were reported.
Nunez said the success is due in large part to the use of water and retardant-dropping air tankers and helicopters, including the massive DC-10 air tanker that can drop up to 12,000 gallons of retardant or water per flight.
The combination of daytime air attacks - as many as 10 helicopters fighting the chaparral and conifer blaze each day - with dozens of round-the-clock hand crews is slowly containing the season's first local wildfire.
The agency expects full containment by Thursday.
When asked if the Forest Service planned on calling in night-flying helicopters from county fire any time to contain the Williams Fire, Nunez last week indicated probably not.
Rogers said he suspects the reason is to save on costs charged by the county.
Nunez said the decision was based on the fire behavior and also on safety.
"It could've helped. That first day, the fire took off quickly," Rogers said. "With all that fire line, we are heading into Santa Ana season. All it takes is high pressure to build and that can happen in 24 hours."
In mid-August, after receiving pressure over the past three years from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would develop its own night-flying capabilities. Tom Harbour, the agency's national director of fire and aviation management, said the move will increase the availability to attack fires by 40 percent.
But those capabilities won't be ready until next year, Schiff said.
"The Forest Service cannot use aircraft at night today, but the USFS is beginning to retrofit their craft and train pilots to fly at night. The retrofitting will take a while," he wrote in an e-mail.
The Forest Service will not have its own night-flying helicopter in the Angeles until "sometime next year," according to Schiff. But it can call in night-flying helicopter pilots from the county, the congressman reiterated.
L.A. County's helicopter pilots fly both day and night flights. There is no need to call in a special flight force, Savage said.
"If the request would've been made, I don't see any reason why we would not have been sent," Savage said.
Williams Fire now in mop-up By Brian Day and Juliette Funes, SGVN
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST - Firefighters are continuing to get the upperhand on the Williams Fire that erupted last weekend, with containment lines built around 72 percent of the wildfire, authorities said Friday.
The blaze, which ignited Sunday afternoon near Camp Williams in the Angeles National Forest north of Glendora, has scorched 4,180 acres but damaged no structures, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The 1,070 firefighters working the blaze were largely transitioning from active firefighting operations to "mop-up" activities, such as hunting for and extinguishing hot spots and beginning the process of forest rehabilitation, USFS Fire Information Officer Robert Brady said.
"Everybody has a job and they're all pretty busy up there and the fire is just laying down, not making any advancement and neither is it dying out," Brady said. "Still, that head of the fire has a lot of hot stuff in it they've got to mitigate, but we're in pretty good shape."
An air tanker and 10 water-dropping helicopters continued soaking the fire from the air, officials said.
The 28 percent of the fire's perimeter that remained unchecked was at its northwest edge, up against and encroaching into the treacherous terrain of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area, USFS officials said.
Firefighters were working on slopes of between 30 percent and 80 percent, officials said.
The forest remained off-limits for the public Friday and Highway 39 remained closed in the forest, though several-dozen permanent residents of Camp Williams were allowed to return home with a sheriff's escort Thursday morning.
Recreationists who were also evacuated when the fire broke out Sunday will be able to return to the site and pick up the gear they left behind with a sheriff's escort on Saturday.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Full containment is expected Thursday.