OCFA vows changes after critical report on Canyon Fire 2 response

An Orange County Fire Authority assistant chief said Friday the agency is overhauling its dispatch and deployment procedures in light of a report identifying a series of missteps that delayed response to an emerging 2017 wildfire by as much as 70 minutes.

That fire -- the Canyon Fire 2 -- grew into one of the most destructive blazes in county history, torching 9,200 acres and destroying more than two dozen structures, including 15 homes.

"Our goal is to ensure a timely review of existing policies and procedures, assess training needs, facilitate implementation of the necessary changes and do this as soon as possible,'' Dave Anderson, OCFA assistant chief of support services, said.

Anderson spoke to reporters at OCFA headquarters in Irvine following the Thursday release of an Independent Review Panel report that found the agency failed to adequately respond to a 911 call made by a motorist at 8:28 a.m. Oct. 9, 2017, reporting flames in an Anaheim Hills area that had
previously been scorched by fire.

The report also found that the agency did not fully respond to a second call received four minutes later, with the agency instead asking firefighters at a nearby station to look outside, ultimately attributing the report to blowing ashes.

The OCFA did not initiate a full response to the fire until roughly 9:40 a.m., according to the report.

Anderson said the agency has already taken steps to improve its procedures, saying that after concerns were raised late last year about the fire response, OCFA ``identified areas that needed to be fixed.''

"As so, working with the fire chief all the way down to the (Emergency Command Center) manager, we analyzed ... what went wrong,'' Anderson said. ``We provided specific directives. In fact, two directives to the Emergency Command Center addressing specific issues from this specific event.

"That wasn't intended to be a comprehensive fix. It was a specific fix to the (problems) that we saw in this one instance,'' he said. ``About three weeks later we did one-on-one training with every single dispatcher, ensuring that they understood ... the factors that led to a series of decisions that led to the actions on the morning of Canyon 2.''

He said that with changes being made in protocols, ``we can confidently say that this won't happen again.''

The question of whether an earlier response to the fire would have prevented the blaze from growing as large as it did or destroying as many structures, however, will likely remain unanswered.

"Would it have saved any structures in Orange County? ... The answer is we will never know,'' said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has been critical of the OCFA's handling of the blaze. ``But last night, the fire chiefs admitted under my questioning ... that absolutely common sense will tell you it could have made a difference.''

"If that call at 8:32 had been taken seriously ... it would have made a significant difference in fighting this fire,'' Spitzer said. ``A significant difference. But we'll never know.''

Spitzer has also criticized the OCFA for its decision to send fire crews that normally would have been in the area of the Canyon Fire 2 to help battle raging wildfires in Northern California. He said a resulting delay in backfilling fire stations left the Canyon Fire area largely unmonitored during red flag conditions that made the region ripe for wildfires.

Anderson said the agency stands by its decision to deploy crews to Northern California, noting that OCFA initially declined to send crews due to anticipated fire conditions locally. But after further review of the raging fires in Northern California, where ``many homes were being burned and lives were being lost,'' he said.

The Board of Supervisors has ordered a separate probe of the OCFA's response to the fire. That report is expected sometime next month.