Friday, October 20, 2017

County Sheriff vs. Fire feud continued during Canyon 2 blaze



Even as the recent Canyon 2 blaze devoured homes and sent residents fleeing for safety, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Fire Authority couldn’t stop bickering.

It is unclear whether the 20-month-old feud between the two agencies hampered efforts to control the fire that eventually burned 9,200 acres and destroyed or damaged 80 structures.

What is clear is that the sniping and finger-pointing — which over the past two years has led to several verbal battles and dangerous helicopter tactics during rescue events — reached a fevered pitch during the biggest fire to hit the county in nearly a decade.

Central to the latest argument was the availability of sheriff helicopters that could be used to knock down the Canyon 2 blaze. Even now, nearly two weeks after the Oct. 9 fire, the two agencies can’t agree on who is responsible for sheriff helicopters not being deployed.

Among the latest accusations and counter-accusations:

Sheriff’s officials complained they had three helicopters available to dump water in the crucial early stages of the Canyon 2 blaze, but were not invited to participate by Orange County Fire Authority officials.

“We had… aircraft to put water on that fire within 15 minutes (of when) the fire flared up,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Hays. “We might have knocked that fire out.”

Officials with the Orange County Fire Authority dispute that, saying at least one of the sheriff helicopters in question isn’t state certified for fire fighting.

Fire officials say they did ask the sheriff’s department to send a small, certified helicopter to coordinate the 31 other aircraft that were dumping water and fire retardant about four hours after the incident began. Instead, after an hour delay, fire officials had to call the sheriff’s department to learn that the helicopter wasn’t coming because, deputies said, there wasn’t access to fuel. Fire officials allege the real reason for not getting the helicopter was frustration on the part of sheriff’s deputies who were not allowed to use bigger, water-dumping helicopters — a claim denied by sheriff’s officials.

One volunteer sheriff’s paramedic said this week that county fire officials refused to respond to a vegetation fire the day before the Canyon 2 blaze. That accusation was quickly debunked by recorded conversations between Anaheim dispatchers and the fire authority, but the story spread quickly over some media outlets and social media, showing the degree to which misinformation and exaggeration have come to dominate communications between the two agencies.

At the heart of the battle is Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ desire to get her four-copter aviation unit more involved in tasks that previously have been the domain of the fire agency, including rescue missions and fire fighting. Hutchens has said she is responding in part to a 2010 Orange County Grand Jury report that chided the department’s air unit for not being more involved in community protection.

Traditionally, sheriff’s helicopters are used for crime patrol and to search for lost or injured people, mostly in wilderness areas. Fire authority helicopters staffed by paramedics and equipped with hoists handle the actual rescues and fight fires.

However, sheriff helicopters now carry paramedics, and the copters have been modified to extract and carry patients from rescue scenes. Sheriff helicopters also are equipped to dump water, Hays said.

The friction between the agencies has become a full-blown turf war. On several occasions since early 2016, sheriff’s pilots have ignored incident commanders and taken over rescues that initially were intended for fire helicopters, according to dispatch recordings.

Leaders of the agencies on two occasions have said the fight is behind them, only to see disputes resume. Next month, fire and sheriff officials are slated to begin non-binding arbitration.

Meanwhile, firefighters say they are concerned that the squabbling, sometimes occurring  mid-air, will lead to a devastating crash or endanger patient care. And Fire Authority pilots said this week that the sheriff’s department continues to poach rescue calls meant for the fire agency, racing to the site in order to claim ownership.

Unlike the fire authority, at least one sheriff’s helicopter is in the air patrolling for most of the day and can get to rescue sites quicker. But the sheriff’s patrol copter does not carry a paramedic and usually has to hover until a second sheriff’s helicopter arrives with one, according to Fire Authority officials. By that time the fire helicopter is usually also on scene.

When that happens it can become a standoff, “with three helicopters arriving for a twisted ankle,” said one OCFA official.

The fight has economic consequences as well. The cost to operate a helicopter, for either department, runs thousands of dollars an hour, depending on the size of the vehicle and the number of personnel.

The tensions also might have played a role in battling the Canyon 2 blaze.

Hays said sheriff’s helicopters were practicing dropping water at Irvine Lake on Oct. 9 when the Canyon 2 fire ignited, around 9:45 a.m.  A sheriff’s helicopter soon was enlisted to fly through neighborhoods announcing an evacuation – but not to fight the fire.

Hays said it seemed like a waste not to use the sheriff’s water-dropping capabilities. He noted the sheriff’s department is mostly certified by the state to fight fires. Fire officials claim at least one sheriff helicopter recently was modified and it’s unclear if its certification is up to date.

On the other side, Fire Authority officials say they did ask the sheriff’s department to supply a small, A-Star, helicopter to work as an in-air coordinator during the blaze. The sheriff’s department initially agreed to send the A-Star, but also offered another one with water dumping capability, which the Fire Authority turned down, according to dispatch tapes.

However, that A-Star never arrived, and sheriff’s officials later explained their agency could not provide a fuel truck to accompany it. Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Balicki said the truck needed to be kept available for a potential sheriff emergency.

Besides the possible gamesmanship over equipment, fire fighters say the feud has turned ugly in other ways. Fire fighters say sheriff’s helicopters have hovered over their homes and over the Fire Authority hangar at the Fullerton Airport. Fire fighters say sheriff’s pilots have shined lights into the Fullerton hangar windows.

Sheriff’s Capt. Balicki denied those allegations.

“That ain’t happening,” he said. “I can guarantee my guys aren’t playing games.”

Balicki explained that his pilots and paramedics sometimes fly their helicopters to Fullerton airport to eat at the Wings CafĂ©. He said the location allows quick access to their aircraft even when they’re dining.

“That has nothing to do with Orange County Fire,” he said.

Story and video ➤ http://www.ocregister.com

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