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Tensions flare over response to devastating Orange County fire

Fifteen homes were completely destroyed by the Canyon Fire 2 that raced through the Orange County hills in early October, fed by Santa Ana winds, heat and abundant, dry brush. Questions are now swirling over firefighters' initial response to the fire.
Fifteen homes were completely destroyed by the Canyon Fire 2 that raced through the Orange County hills in early October, fed by Santa Ana winds, heat and abundant, dry brush. Questions are now swirling over firefighters' initial response to the fire.
Jill Replogle

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Less than a week after Southern California firefighters declared the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County fully contained, allegations flared up over whether the initial fire response was flawed. An ongoing dispute between the OC Fire Authority and Sheriff’s Department appears to be behind some of the allegations.

The questions, first reported by the Orange County Register, surround whether the OC Fire Authority took initial reports of the fire as seriously as it should have, and whether helicopters operated by the sheriff’s department should've been used to battle the flames.

The Canyon Fire 2, Southern California’s most damaging fire this year, scorched more than 14 square miles in Orange County and completely destroyed 15 homes in Anaheim and Orange. 

Shortly after receiving reports of smoke near the 91 freeway on the morning of Oct. 9, the OC Fire Authority dispatched two fire engines and a helicopter to investigate, according to Battalion Chief Marc Stone. 

Stone said the initial response was small because  in previous days the agency had received repeated reports of smoke that turned out to be false alarms. He said people often mistake ash whirling through the air from previous fires — in this case, the first Canyon Fire — for smoke. 

“Especially that morning when you had the wind coming through the canyon, it will pick up and spin as a dust devil or throw that ash up into the sky and it can appear to look like smoke from the untrained eye,” Stone said.  

He said firefighters arrived on scene about 16 minutes after the first call. At that point, they realized there was a fire and initiated a full response, Stone said.  

Several hours later, 17 helicopters and 14 fixed-wing aircraft were battling the flames. The four helicopters owned by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department weren’t among them. 

Their absence raises questions as to whether the ongoing squabble between the two agencies over search and rescue efforts bled over into the fire response. The fire authority and sheriff’s department have been feuding for several years about who should respond to search and rescue requests requiring helicopters.

Stu Greenberg, who oversees air operations for the sheriff’s department, said at least three of the agency's helicopters could have been used to drop water on the fire. "I don’t know why we weren’t requested,” he said. "[The helicopters] are available to fight fires and almost always would get there before anybody else.” 

Stone said the sheriff’s department wasn’t certified to use a piece of equipment — a giant bladder called a belly tank, used to dump water on fires — that had been requested by incident commanders coordinating fire fighting efforts. 

He said sheriff’s department pilots needed special training to operate a belly tank "so that they understand how to fight fire instead of just dropping water from a helicopter. There’s more to it.”

Cal Fire has since certified the sheriff’s department to use the equipment. 

The OC Fire Authority did ask the sheriff’s department to use one of its helicopters to act as an in-air traffic controller, coordinating the other aircraft fighting the fire, Greenberg and Stone said. But a dispute over which agency would refuel that helicopter appears to have stymied the request. 

Ultimately, incident commanders found someone else to do the job.  

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the questions raised about the fire response warrant an investigation. 

“We deserve to know what happened, and if there were mistakes made, we need to understand what they were and how we are assured that we’re not going to be in that situation again,” Nelson said. 

He noted, with exasperation, that he felt he couldn’t trust the version of events told by either of the two agencies. “I don’t know who to believe, and I’m skeptical, on both sides, of agendas on each side," Nelson said.

Buena Park Mayor Elizabeth Smith, who chairs the OC Fire Authority's Board of Directors, said via email: "I assure you that OCFA is doing a thorough review of everything that occurred and will report out in a short period of time." 

The fire authority and sheriff’s department are scheduled to begin arbitration next month over the use of helicopters for search and rescue efforts.