Audio recordings released Thursday indicate that authorities elected not to extinguish a small blaze near the Canyon Fire 2 burn area the day before it erupted in Anaheim Hills, prompting speculation that more could have been done to prevent the destructive wildfire.
The fire, which broke out Oct. 9 near the 91 Freeway and Gypsum Canyon, destroyed 25 structures, charred 9,200 acres and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residences in Anaheim, Orange and Tustin.
According to retired Orange County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jim Slikker, the O.C. Fire Authority was alerted to a small blaze that broke out near Sierra Peak in the Cleveland National Forest on the afternoon of Oct. 8. The location is about a mile away from where the Canyon Fire 2 is believed to have started the following morning, he said.
The agency did not respond to the incident, opting instead to apparently let the blaze burn itself out, according to a nearly 5-minute audio recording that was obtained by KTLA.
Listen to the audio recording above
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,” according to the recording.
“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.
In an interview with KTLA Thursday night, Slikker said he was “extremely alarmed” by the recording.
“When I heard the radio transmission … I was completely appalled, I mean, it was outrageous that they blew this off,” he said. “I know that they’re saying the origin of the fire was from west of where the active flames were seen, but the issue is those active flames – Orange County Fire Authority did absolutely nothing.”
The Fire Authority, however, disputed Slikker’s claim, which was first published by City News Service. Slikker told CNS he heard the radio conversation because he was on duty as a volunteer sheriff’s medic at the time.
In a statement responding to the complaint, the Fire Authority said 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 on their part.
Speaking with KTLA Friday, OCFA Battalion Chief Marc Stone said his agency did everything necessary, including communicating extensively with the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the location of the initial flare-up in Sierra Peak.
Officials from several agencies determined the flames were not a threat, as the fire was in the middle of barren terrain in an area that previously burned.
Authorities have also said the hot spot in question was not in the area where the Canyon Fire 2 is to believed to have started; investigators from Anaheim, OCFA and Cal Fire have excluded that area as the origin of the fire.
Slikker, however, believes it’s possible an ember from the spot fire could’ve been pushed by strong winds and caused the 9,200-acre wildfire. He added that authorities knew that the Santa Ana winds were coming, and should have taken extra precautions to put out any and all fires in the area.
“It’s my belief that those embers blew – the origin was about a mile away from where the Canyon 2 Fire — ignited the Canyon 2 Fire from those active flames that were seen by the Anaheim helicopter, and Orange County Fire decided to do absolutely nothing about it,” Slikker told KTLA.
But according to Stone, investigators have determined embers would have had to travel three miles upwind in order to start the fire, which he said would have been impossible.
Slikker further said the agency had three water-dropping helicopters at the ready at a nearby airport, but that they were never utilized.
“Our pilots asked if you’d like us to launch and help drop water, and Orange County Fire Authority said no,” he said.
Investigators have not yet received direct complaints regarding that, but the agency is examining the allegations, according to the statement.
An investigation is ongoing.
KTLA’s Chip Yost contributed to this story.