In the first hour of the Coastal Fire — before it turned into an inferno that destroyed 20 ocean-view homes — a single Orange County Fire Authority helicopter fought the blaze , without the aid of the sheriff’s water-dropping plane which was idle and not ready.
Although Orange County Sheriff’s helicopters have in the past been able to self-dispatch to such fires whether or not they were called by the fire department, a policy change in 2019 prohibited them. to respond unless invited to do so. As a result, the Sheriff’s Air Support Unit removed the $459,000 water tanks from its two Huey planes, leaving them unprepared, unmanned or out of maintenance as homes burned May 11 in Laguna Niguel.
Retired Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald, who led the department’s aviation team, said each Huey helicopter could have responded from John Wayne Airport to the Coastal Fire in 10 minutes. It took 30 minutes for the OCFA helicopter to arrive, records show.
Sheriff officials say they could have reinstalled each water tank in less than an hour if asked. Fitzgerald, who installed them, said it would likely take around 90 minutes for each helicopter.
“Sending only one (OCFA) helicopter…is negligent,” Fitzgerald said. “Waiting for a fire to grow, then deciding to put in the belly tanks and calling a pilot from home, is too late to keep (homes) in Orange County from burning.”
“It’s just crazy”
Ali Darian, whose Coronado Pointe home was destroyed, said the sheriff’s Huey helicopters should have been prepared and should not have waited for an invitation.
“It’s just crazy. … Why should they wait for an invitation? The fire doesn’t wait for an invitation,” said Darian, 63, a mortgage broker. make the difference.
Under the former sheriff, Sandra Hutchens, the department’s water-drop plane is said to have self-deployed. Had they been ready when the Coastal Fire erupted, each Huey could have dropped up to 7,000 gallons of water in the first hour – while the fire was still small, Fitzgerald said.
Asked why the sheriff’s department changed its policy, spokeswoman Carrie Braun said simply that the warrant was passed with the cooperation of the Fire Authority.
OCFA officials said they did not request assistance from the Sheriff’s Huey Duke 6 and Duke 7 helicopters for the coastal fire because the county’s daily situation report indicated that a helicopter was under maintenance and the other unmanned. Braun said the Huey helicopter was unmanned because the only pilot on duty was flying a patrol helicopter to help with evacuation announcements for the fire effort.
Air support from CalFire and other jurisdictions did not begin arriving until 4 p.m., an hour and 16 minutes after the fire was first reported. By 7:35 p.m., 16 planes from as far away as Porterville were dropping water and retarders or carrying out reconnaissance, but it was too late to prevent the wind-whipped flames from coming up the hill and through the houses.
The history of the sheriff’s firefighting helicopters is complicated.
The Sheriff’s Department, under Hutchens, had entered the firefighting business around 2016. Sheriff’s helicopters began responding uninvited to fire calls and medical rescues, previously the exclusive domain of the Fire Authority. This sparked an “air war” between the two agencies that raged for about three years.
The 2017 Canyon 2 fire strengthened the position of the sheriff’s department, which burned for eight days, charred 9,200 acres, destroyed 15 homes and 10 other structures and displaced thousands of residents in Anaheim Hills and Tustin.
Investigations by the county and OCFA concluded that the fire authority had essentially ignored initial reports of flames on October 9, 2017, and was too slow to dispatch the resources needed to fight the blaze.
Specifically, investigations found that OCFA officials downplayed a 911 call reporting flames in a canyon at 8:32 a.m. Instead of following protocol, which would require dispatching personnel and equipment at the scene, they ordered firefighters from a station more than a mile away to watch. outside and report what they saw.
Fitzgerald said that because of the mistakes, county officials in 2018 supported the sheriff’s policy of responding to fires immediately and without being called.
Water tanks removed
This is the policy that Sheriff Don Barnes’ administration changed after taking over the agency in January 2019. With this policy change, the Sheriff’s Air Support Team removed water tanks from Huey helicopters to making them lighter and more fuel efficient for research. and rescues.
The only aircraft sent by the sheriff to the coastal fire, a patrol helicopter, was not equipped to drop water, but acted as a fire spotter.
The sheriff’s helicopter appeared to be the first on the scene when the fire broke out around 2:44 p.m. on May 11. An OCFA water dropper was immediately dispatched but did not arrive until 3:13 p.m., according to records and Fire Authority spokesman Matt Olson.
By 3:30 p.m. the fire had spread to three acres. That’s when it would have been crucial for the sheriff’s plane to douse the flames, Fitzgerald said.
But the removable water tanks, which collected dust at the airport, had become expensive “weights of paper” instead of essential firefighting tools, he said.
Olson said the initial attack on the Coastal Fire focused on ground crews and stopped the blaze where it started – in the flat part of the canyon where the winds and topography weren’t. not as extreme.
Despite these efforts, he said, using numerous engines and firefighters with hoses around the fire at the base of the canyon and multiple helicopter water drops, the fire was eventually spotted on the hill.
Fixed-wing aircraft laid fire lines on vegetation in front of homes before the fire reached those neighborhoods, Olson said. Engines arrived in neighborhoods 45 minutes before the blaze hit homes, but high winds and dry vegetation pushed embers past fire lines and into homes, Olson said.
Owner Darian said he observed the early stages of the blaze, when he was still small, and noticed a lone helicopter flying overhead – not dropping any water. It was probably the sheriff’s patrol helicopter. Fitzgerald said if it weren’t for the 2019 policy, the sheriff could have reacted just as quickly with a water-spilling Huey.
“Before the OCSD policy change, I had participated in several fires in Orange County flying a Duke 6 where I was the only helicopter dropping water for the first 30 minutes,” said said Fitzgerald. “OCSD’s 2019 policy change was certainly not in the best interest of the people of Orange County.”