The Orange County Fire Authority announced on Wednesday that it will be recommending an independent investigation into allegations that the agency could have done more to prevent the Canyon Fire 2, which destroyed 25 structures and damaged four dozen more.
Audio recordings released on Oct. 20 imply that the agency chose not to extinguish a small fire in Sierra Peak, several miles away from the Canyon Fire 2, on Oct. 8.
Canyon Fire 2 began burning the next day, on Oct. 9, near the 91 Freeway and Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills. The large wildfire eventually burned more than 9,200 acres and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residences in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin.
Authorities on Wednesday said they had ruled out a connection between that initial sighting and the fast-moving Canyon Fire 2. But they provided new information that raised additional questions about the timing of the fire response.
Fire Authority Interim Chief Patrick McIntosh addressed allegations during a press conference and told reporters that he will on Thursday recommend to the agency's board an independent review of the incident and an assessment of policies and procedures.
"For the past few days my command staff and I have been combing through every piece of information available to date, for us to better understand the timeline and the actions that occurred," said McIntosh. "I felt, as the fire chief, that it was imperative that we share that information with the public ... and to be transparent about what happen in the early hours of the morning of Oct. 9."
McIntosh added that, based on the preliminary evaluation, there are many things that were "done and planned well" and " things we could have done differently."
He detailed the order in which calls were received regard the Canyon Fire 2, including reports of flames inside the burn area of the initial Canyon Fire, which burned nearby and about two weeks before the second fire by the same name.
One of the calls described was new: an 8:32 a.m. call from the California Highway Patrol that transferred a 911 call reporting flames. Firefighters didn't arrive to the blaze until more than an hour later.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer issued a statement saying he supported an independent investigation, especially given that new information.
"I was disappointed when I was informed this afternoon that a previously unreported recording of a dispatch response indicates flames in the area were reported more than an hour before fire authorities first sent engines only after receiving numerous other emergency calls," Spitzer said in a statement. "We are now examining a response time of more than an hour."
McIntosh said the independent review will help provide will be an important step in ensuring that OCFA is constantly evaluating how they are providing services.
OCFA previously said that the agency did everything necessary, including communicating extensively with the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the location of an initial flare-up reported Oct. 8 near Sierra Peak in the Cleveland National Forest.
According to a recording, an Anaheim Police Department helicopter spotted the fire and radioed it in, saying, “It’s not just smoke, I mean, there’s definitely flames … there’s definitely flames."
"They are just trying to let burn itself out. They can’t get down to those spots, so they’re just letting it burn," someone from the Orange County Fire Authority can be heard saying.
"OK ... If that's correct, we'll let it be," the person in the Anaheim police helicopter responds.
A retired sheriff's deputy who was working as an off-duty medic that day drew attention to the Sierra Peak fire, suggesting firefighters hadn't responded properly and that the blaze might have started the Canyon Fire 2.
The Fire Authority said in its statement that the agency's Emergency Command Center received a report from Anaheim police, then made calls to the Corona Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service dispatch centers to further investigate the report.
The hot spot was determined to be "a smoldering island within a burn area and USFS was monitoring," the statement read. "The fire," it continued, "was well into the burn."
OCFA was advised by USFS that no further assistance was required.
Preliminary information from fire investigators has ruled out that Sierra Peak fire as being linked to the Canyon Fire 2, McIntosh said Wednesday.
An ember would have had to travel nearly 3 miles – against the wind – from Sierra Peak north to the location of the start of the Canyon Fire 2, authorities said.
"The fire investigators have ruled that out. There's no way that the fire from Sierra Peak ... could have traveled that distance upwind," OCFA Battalion Chief Marc Stone said.
Added McIntosh: "We have nothing to hide."