By Kimberly Edds
The Orange County Register
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Despite countless hours of practice and planning by the Orange County Fire Authority for a fire racing through the Santa Ana riverbed and directly into Yorba Linda, firefighters disregarded orders and off-duty crews commandeered fire engines in the midst of last November's devastating Freeway Complex fire, driving engines into the firefight without telling superiors what they were doing or where they were going.
Firefighters put themselves and others at risk and handcuffed firefighting options when they failed to follow their chain of command, a report released Thursday said.
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The revelations are part of a 128-page report by the OCFA that looks at the successes and failures during the Freeway Complex fire and suggests how the county's largest firefighting agency can improve its capabilities in the future.
A total of 203 homes — 117 in Yorba Linda — were destroyed, the "most catastrophic loss of homes in Orange County since the Laguna Fire in 1993," the report said. An additional 117 residences were damaged, and more than 40,000 people were forced from their homes in the largest fire in Orange County since 1948.
But no one died or was seriously injured, and hundreds of homes were saved by the efforts of more than 3,800 firefighters, the report said.
Three weeks before the Freeway Complex fire broke out Nov. 15, local firefighters held a tabletop exercise closely mimicked the actual fire, giving officials a jump on strategy and tactics.
OCFA Battalion Chief Rick Reeder raced from his fire station in Placentia to the fire, calling for extra engines and aircraft miles before he saw flames. Traffic along the 91 could not keep up with the fast-moving head of the fire. A second blaze broke out in Brea less than two hours later, creating a monster.
Four days later, firefighters had reigned in the 30,305-acre blaze.
Of $16.1 million spent to fight the fires, all but $33,000 was reimbursed by state and federal funds. The fires caused an estimated $150 million in damage. The cause of the Corona end of the fire was ruled an accidental spark from a car exhaust along the 91 at Green River. The Brea fire had been sparked by downed powered lines.
Quick response praised
Fire officials credited pre-staging equipment and crews, recent tabletop exercises and changes in the state's mutual aid system for a quick response. Within the first four hours of the fire, 159 engines, three trucks, five water tenders, eight helicopters and 10 air tankers were attacking the flames. Forty-one engines were there within the first hour, the report said. But issues with communication and water supply hampered firefighting efforts.
After hundreds of interviews and a review of hundreds of documents and thousands of radio transmissions, the authors of the post-mortem came up with a veritable wish list of 56 changes, improvements and upgrades.
The major recommendations include improving radio communications, training crews in battling house fires near wild land areas, working with local water agencies to identify and rectify weaknesses in water systems, and developing a rapid-mobilization plan in large-scale emergency situations.
Nearly 18 months after the Santiago fire raced through Orange County's canyons, tight economic times have forced the OCFA to postpone several major recommendations after that fire, including replacing its part-time hand crew with a full-time crew and adding a fourth firefighter to wild land engines to meet federal standards. The same recommendations were echoed in the Freeway Complex review.
While several recommendations have been completed or are under way, the ones that cost money, including increasing staff, will likely have to wait, Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said.
"We have to balance out our No. 1 responsibility, which is public safety, with our responsibility to the taxpayer," Concepcion said. "As soon as it is economically feasible, we will implement them."
'Heroes' or mavericks?
Problems plagued the firefighting effort from the start.
The plan was to pinch off the fire early. But hundreds of gallons of water destined to be dropped by helicopters on the fire had to be diverted and dropped on a Corona fire engine crew that was overrun by flames after it went off-road to try to fight the flames, a decision that placed them in a "dangerous position" between the fast-moving fire and unburned brush, the report said. The crew was saved, but flames raced toward Yorba Linda, throwing embers more than a mile in front of the fire.
"It's an angry fire, and it's not getting any happier," Reeder said. "Are we going to stop it? No. How do we want it and what can we do to make it come into Yorba Linda the way we want it to?"
Two strike teams — a total of 10 fire engines — were ordered by Reeder to stage at Station 53 on East La Palma in Yorba Linda to get ahead of the fire. "In my mind, what was burning in Corona was already done," Reeder said. "It was not the piece to worry about."
Strike team leaders ignored Reeder's order, self-dispatching instead to Corona. With the original order unfilled, strike teams did not arrive at Yorba Linda until 11 a.m. — nearly 2 hours later. The first Yorba Linda house was already burning.
Fire stations were emptied to fight the Laguna Beach fire in 1993, but entire OCFA battalions were left fully staffed during the Freeway Complex fire, officials said.
"We had two fires burning close to each other, and we didn't know what caused them," Concepcion said. Extra strike teams were ordered from other counties, but it took time for them to arrive.
Off-duty OCFA crews were mounting their own defenses, hijacking three engines and heading to the firefight, creating serious safety and accountability issues. Command staff scrambling for extra engines to send to the firefight spent up to 12 hours trying to find the maverick engines, the report said.
"These firefighters are heroes," OCFA union President Joe Kerr said. "These firefighters came in off-duty to try to do everything they could to save homes. A lot of homes were saved because of them. You're not going to find more dedication than that."
"We take crew accountability very seriously," Concepcion said. "We want to make sure this never happens again."
The involved firefighters have been interviewed but were not disciplined, Kerr said.
The fire chief and the union plan to send a letter to its employees reminding them that department rules and regulations need to be followed, even during a disaster. Even though the crews were not assigned to work, they were paid, Concepcion said.
Wages are paid at time and a half for nonscheduled work days. A preliminary report made no mention of the rogue crews.
Alert system not activated
The fire moved fast.
Santa Ana winds up to 60 mph sent flames hurtling over steep, dry hills — and on a direct path to Yorba Linda.
The fire consumed the length of nearly 14 football fields every 60 seconds. More than 10,000 acres burned in the first 12 hours, taking with it hundreds of homes and buildings.
City and county officials failed to activate an automatic telephone alert system. The first calls telling residents to flee the fire didn't go out until after 4 p.m., nearly three hours after the OCFA issued a news release stating a "raging wildfire" had destroyed homes in Anaheim Hills, Brea and Yorba Linda.
Dozens of homes continued to burn in Yorba Linda around 2 p.m. as firefighters were also forced to battle low water pressure and dry hydrants on Hidden Hills Road and surrounding streets, the report said.
One strike team leader told OCFA Chief Chip Prather that his crews could have saved five or six homes of the dozens that burned in the Hidden Hills neighborhood.
But without water, the team's five engines were forced to move to lower ground. There, they found hydrants with water and made a stand against the blaze.
OCFA water tenders were called in to shuttle water to crews. But the pressure problems also hindered the tenders' efforts, Prather said. Fire outnumbered fire engines. Fire crews snuffed out flames before moving to the next burning home but returned to neighborhoods hours later to find dozens of new fires, sparked by embers unknowingly inhaled into attics. Four days later, the fire was reigned in.
"We want to improve. We want to get better," Kerr said. "What we need to work on is command and control and proper staffing and deployment so we can keep small fires small."
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