Orange County Fire Authority officials are planning to set up an outside investigation of their response to a wildfire this month that damaged or destroyed nearly 60 homes in Anaheim and Orange, as officials acknowledge they could have done a better job responding to early reports of the fire.
“There are things we could have done differently,” Interim Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. The outside review goes to the Fire Authority’s board for approval Thursday night.
McIntosh said he’s “proud of the work” firefighters did in battling the flames, but suggested his agency should have taken more seriously a report of flames that could have led fire crews to the scene an hour sooner.
“I think we could have handled the call different,” and that will be part of the “independent investigation,” he said.
The Canyon Fire 2 was detected east of Anaheim Hills on the morning of Oct. 9 and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes before burning over 9,200 acres.
No civilians were reported injured in the Canyon Fire 2, although four firefighters had minor injuries, according to Fire Authority officials.
Additionally, a prison inmate who was helping fight the fire walked away from his team and escaped.
At 8:32 a.m. on the morning of the fire, the California Highway Patrol transferred to the Fire Authority a 9-1-1 call in which the caller reported fire and flames above the 91 freeway and 241 toll road interchange.
But the Fire Authority didn’t send a fire crew to verify the flames until an hour later, according to a timeline McIntosh read aloud to reporters.
That’s because Station 53 in Yorba Linda, which was closest to the scene and was tasked with checking out the initial call, didn’t have staff on hand who were authorized to drive a fire engine, McIntosh said. The station’s fire engine staff had been sent to Northern California earlier that morning to assist with devastating fires near Santa Rosa, McIntosh said.
So instead of traveling to the scene of the fire report, the station staff looked out the window and reported seeing “ash coming off the canyon that looks like smoke,” according to a written timeline provided Wednesday night by the Fire Authority.
The Fire Authority took no further action to respond to the fire until an about hour later, McIntosh said.
Fire Authority officials have said that during the days leading up to the Canyon Fire 2, they received numerous reports of fires in the canyons that turned out to simply be ash from a prior wildfire, known as the Canyon Fire.
After a second report of smoke came in at 9:28 a.m., the Fire Authority dispatched a single fire engine without lights and sirens and a helicopter to check for smoke, according to McIntosh.
A few minutes later, at 9:36 a.m., the fire was confirmed and at 9:43 a.m. the Fire Authority ordered a response that included seven fire engines, two water supply trucks, two helicopters, and two airplanes, McIntosh said.
While McIntosh had precise times for much of the response, there were pieces of information he said he didn’t know, including when the Fire Authority’s helicopters actually took flight, and whether his agency requested support from the Sheriff’s Department’s water-dropping helicopters.
Sheriff officials say they had three water-dropping helicopters available, but the Fire Authority didn’t ask for them.
“We never got a request for…any helicopters or any air support to fight the fire,” said Commander Stu Greenberg, who is in charge of field operations for the Sheriff’s Department, in a phone interview with Voice of OC earlier this week.
Asked whether the Fire Authority requested the water-dropping helicopters, and if not, why not, McIntosh said he didn’t know.
“I don’t want to speculate on that,” McIntosh said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Asked specifically if he doesn’t know whether the helicopter request was made, he said: “Correct.”
He also left open the possibility the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have the state certifications it needs to use its water-dropping helicopters to fight fires. “I don’t want to speculate” about all the certifications the Sheriff’s Department has, McIntosh said.
All three water-dropping helicopters and their pilots are fully certified, according to Greenberg, the sheriff’s commander.
“We’ve been certified for years,” Greenberg said. While one of the helicopters had a single piece of equipment that was not certified, that could have been addressed by having it use a bucket, he said.
“All three helicopters are certified and have been certified to fight fires, by CalFire,” he said, referring to the state’s firefighting agency.
Sheriff and Fire Authority’s helicopter crews have been locked in a heated turf war over who responds to emergency calls in Orange County’s remote canyons.
Orange County supervisors, who set the rules for helicopter search and rescue in the county, were asked by both agencies in August to appoint a mediator to resolve the dispute. But a narrow majority of supervisors blocked that request, declining to let the county mediate and instead leaving it to the two agencies to sort out.
McIntosh also said he only learned Wednesday morning that the 8:32 a.m. call had been transferred to the Fire Authority. He didn’t explain why it apparently took 16 days for it to come to his attention.
Overall, McIntosh credited the hard work of firefighters with preventing far worse damage, saying the firefighters “did an amazing job in amazing conditions” to protect homes.
He got emotional when describing the damage that did take place. “We’re devastated homes were lost,” McIntosh said, seemingly holding back tears.
But, he said, many homes were saved because of the firefighters.
County supervisors are scheduled to discuss the Canyon Fire 2 response at their board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 31, under an item requested by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who earlier this week called for an independent investigation into the Fire Authority’s response to the fire.
During his news conference Wednesday, McIntosh said he wants “to be transparent about what happened” in the early morning hours of Oct. 9.
Later on Wednesday, Fire Authority officials released a written timeline and audio files of communications about the fire response that morning.
However, the agency has yet to release the written dispatch logs and helicopter flight logs, which also document how the fire response unfolded. Voice of OC requested the records earlier this week.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.