A 9-1-1 dispatcher with the Orange County Fire Authority misrepresented an early report of flames when passing it on to a fire station, according to audio recordings, as the agency faces criticism over the hour-plus delay in responding to the Canyon Fire 2 that later destroyed or damaged about 60 homes.
The recordings of the dispatcher are raising further concerns about the Fire Authority’s initial response to the fire, which is already under scrutiny. Officials at the agency plan to commission an “independent investigation” into what happened, and county officials are considering their own investigation as well.
The call came in at 8:32 a.m. on Oct. 9, the morning of the fire. The male caller told the Fire Authority dispatcher he was driving west on the 91 freeway and saw a fire near where the freeway meets the 241 toll road.
“There is a fire almost next to the top of the mountain,” the caller reported.
The unnamed Fire Authority dispatcher asked if he saw dust, smoke, or flames.
“There is a real fire,” the caller replied.
“Do you see flames?” asked the dispatcher. “Or what is it that you see?”
“Yes, flames. Yes,” the caller replied.
But when the dispatcher reported the call to Fire Station 53, which is near the interchange, he reported the caller “said that there was possibly a fire.”
The dispatcher didn’t tell the station the caller reported seeing flames.
The station staff looked out the windows, but didn’t see a fire, and took no further action until about an hour later when another call came in, according to the Fire Authority’s interim chief, Patrick McIntosh.
The station lacked a fire engine at the time because higher-ups at the Fire Authority sent its engine crew to Northern California earlier that morning, without backfilling the station with another engine crew. Station 53 was the closest fire station to a known fire risk area during a “red flag” warning of high fire risks.
About an hour after the 8:32 call, another person reported a fire near the 91 and 241, and the Fire Authority sent an engine crew to verify the flames, and then activated a fuller response.
“We know that the first call specifically said flames at 8:32,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said at Tuesday’s meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.
Yet the Fire Authority’s helicopters weren’t in the air “for over an hour,” he said. “That’s not a minor issue.”
“They didn’t take the call serious at 8:30. And the gentleman said ‘fire,’ ‘flames.’ And he was challenged, as if the average people wouldn’t know fire if he saw it,” Nelson said.
Then, he said, the Fire Authority’s response was to “stand outside” and see if they saw any smoke. “On a red flag day, don’t we all know that any sign of smoke could be a major catastrophe in moments?”
“When those winds are gonna blow, you better have people standing by intervening in any call” that mentions flames, Nelson said.
This was “total negligence,” he added.
The Fire Authority’s interim chief has said the call could have been handled “differently,” and that he’s committed to an independent, “unbiased” investigation into what happened.
“If there are opportunities to do our work better,” such as lessons learned, policies, and training, “then we’re committed to that, and I’m committed to that as your fire chief,” McIntosh told supervisors Tuesday after Nelson leveled his criticism. “We will have that review, it will be unbiased.”
McIntonsh said he expects the experts for the Fire Authority’s review will be in place within the next couple of weeks, and that their investigation will take between 60 and 90 days.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer also criticized the handling of the 8:32 call. “For a dispatcher to ask a bulldozer operator or somebody, who’s at [Station] 53,” to look out the window to corroborate whether there’s a fire by the freeway, is “completely inexcusable. It just is.”
Fire Authority officials have said they had received numerous calls reporting fires in the days leading up to the Canyon Fire 2, but that those calls turned out to simply be ash from a prior fire that looked like smoke.
Nelson said it seemed like a situation of “the boy who cried wolf” and the staff were “worn out.”
But, he said, “professionals know better, or they should. And they didn’t.”
Supervisor Andrew Do questioned why Fire Authority management did not ensure a fire engine was on site at the station that’s closest to one of Orange County’s “most vulnerable” areas for wildfires, particularly during a red flag warning.
“Why would we leave that particular station inadequate” to address issues that arise, Do asked, adding that it “troubles” him. He also questioned why the Fire Authority “somehow held back” or did not give permission for the Sheriff’s Department to use its water-dropping helicopters on the fire.
McIntosh said his agency’s outside probe would examine those and other issues.
Over 1,000 firefighters – from as far away as Santa Barbara and near the U.S.-Mexico border – ended up battling the flames for days. Four firefighters sustained minor injuries. About 60 homes were damaged or destroyed but no civilians were reported injured.
Additionally, a prison inmate who was helping fight the fire walked away from his team and escaped.
The Fire Authority has not released the dispatcher’s name or said whether he was following policy. The agency’s chief spokesman, Battalion Chief Marc Stone, didn’t return a phone message Tuesday for comment.
Stone has also not returned any of Voice of OC’s calls over the past week seeking information and documents about the fire response.
Nelson questioned Tuesday why it took the Fire Authority over two weeks to acknowledge the 8:32 a.m. report of flames, suggesting its officials only did so after Nelson went public with concerns.
County supervisors are considering having the county commission its own investigation of the fire response, separate from the Fire Authority’s “independent investigation.” Supervisors directed county staff to review options to hire outside investigators.
“There were significant events on that day that let the people that pay for the service down, and I believe we need independent answers so that we understand why this is happening, despite policies that are supposed to prevent this sort of stuff,” Nelson said.
The policies on most of these issues likely “already exist,” but were buried on a shelf somewhere, and “probably weren’t followed,” Nelson said.
“It should be mere minutes to get [a helicopter] in the air…not an extended period of time.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.