Calif. police dept. criticized for dumping water on woman during helicopter fire training

The errant dumping generated questions about whether the department is as yet skilled enough to use the helicopters to fight fires

By Jordan Graham and Keith Sharon
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — An Orange County sheriff’s helicopter practicing firefighting techniques in Huntington Beach last month inadvertently dumped water on a woman standing outside a plumbing business, generating questions about whether the department is as yet skilled enough to fight fires.

The errant dumping occurred Oct. 9, the day the Canyon Fire 2 erupted in Anaheim Hills. While the blaze burned more than 9,000 acres and damaged or destroyed nearly 60 structures, the Orange County Fire Authority did not ask the sheriff’s three helicopters for help dumping water — a decision that later sparked criticism from county supervisors and the community.

However, a damage claim filed by the drenched woman suggests more study might be needed on the sheriff’s readiness to engage in firefighting, officials said.

“We want to know if the sheriff’s department is trained up to deal with these situations … We need to understand what their future capabilities are,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is helping to monitor a fire investigation requested by Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

“I certainly want (the claim) in our investigation,” Spitzer said.

Sheriff’s officials acknowledged the dumping mistake and noted that the incident occurred while training. If the agency had been asked to help fight the Canyon Fire 2, officials said,it has pilots on staff who are more experienced with the equipment.

Capt. Joe Balicki, who heads the sheriff’s aviation unit, said accuracy “would not have been an issue” while fighting a wildfire on a hillside.

“You don’t have to be that accurate in an open area,” Balicki said.

Nelson agreed.

“Is the contest to see who drops the potato in the bucket from the highest height? No,” the supervisor said.

But fire officials noted that stakes are high when fighting any blaze. Fire Authority Battalion Chief Marc Stone said firefighters on the ground could sustain significant injuries if a helicopter missed the target while dropping water.

“Imagine 300 gallons of water at eight pounds per gallon, coming down 100 feet on top of your head,” Stone said. “Do misses happen? Yes. But it’s very important they don’t happen regularly.”

“I can tell you this,” Stone added. “Our carded pilots have not dropped water on civilians.”

For nearly two years, sheriff’s department and fire authority pilots have feuded over whether sheriff’s helicopters should be used in rescue situations and to fight fires, jobs traditionally reserved in Orange County for firefighters. That ongoing dispute has led to numerous confrontations between deputies and fire officials, including tug-of-war style arguments over who would respond to rescue calls. The agencies are in official mediation over the issue.

That argument became public again after news broke on how the fire authority responded to the Canyon Fire 2. That morning, as flames that soon would devour homes started, sheriff’s pilots were practicing water drops at Irvine Lake, less than five miles from the fire’s origin. But the Sheriff’s Department was not invited to help fight the blaze, in part because fire officials believed the sheriff’s equipment wasn’t legally certified for that purpose.

That’s why sheriff pilots moved their training to a patch of dirt behind a Huntington Beach fire training center near Gothard Street.

Kayla Kuvakas, a 28-year-old dispatcher at Crandall’s Plumbing, said she could feel a rumbling generated by the helicopters as she sat at her desk between 10 and 11 that morning.

“It was a really loud sound, and really low,” she said. “My desk was shaking.”

She went outside and saw a sheriff’s helicopter. It had a reddish funnel hanging from the bottom.

And then …

“As soon as I looked up, the water dumped on me,” she said. “I was soaked.”

Kuvakas dropped her phone, which shattered, and ran. She saw the helicopter continue to drop water on a nearby construction crew and on firefighters who were training.

Kuvakas went inside her office and dried her shirt, using a dryer that plumbers use for their tools. She said her supervisor later urged her to leave work, according to her claim.

She is asking the county for $1,079 for damage to her Michael Kors wristwatch and her cellphone and $2,000 for other compensation.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Bart Epley, a helicopter pilot, confirmed the incident, saying he was practicing dumping water that morning using the belly tank that’s been attached to the department’s Huey helicopter.

“I was training with it, and so I released (the water) a little bit early,” Epley said.

“It’s like anything else; as you go on you get better.”

Epley said the helicopter was carrying about 150 gallons that he’d pulled from a nearby reservoir. He said Kuvakas was hit by spray, not a direct blast of water.

“I apologized,” Epley said. “I regret hitting her. It was just a mistake.”

Copyright 2017 The Orange County Register

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