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Shortages added fuel to O.C. fire
Before the Santiago fire started in the hills northeast of Irvine, the Orange County fire department already had been hobbled.
Its fire engines were staffed below national standards, it had fewer firefighters per capita than neighboring counties, and its army of men and women ready to fight the blaze may have been weakened by changes in the county's volunteer firefighter program.
Making matters worse, local crews and equipment had been sent to the Malibu fire, as had reinforcements from the state. Aircraft remained grounded because of the wind and bureaucratic obstacles.
"We're out there with a handful of crews trying to stop this big fire, and all we could do was just put out spot fires," said Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. "It would have been great to have the cavalry come in, but there were several fires burning, and it was taking time for the resources to get here."
As a result, the blaze that began last Sunday punched through the county's defenses, destroying at least 16 homes, threatening more than 3,000 and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate.
Orange County's problems with the Santiago fire illustrate a recurrent pattern in much of Southern California -- county fire departments that find themselves ill-equipped to handle a major blaze.
Sometimes, help from the state or neighboring counties comes to the rescue. Other times, a fire is so huge that no reasonable amount of people and equipment likely will suffice.
In some fires, however, lack of resources makes a difference. Those blazes are the ones that highlight a region's shortages. The Santiago fire appears to have been one such blaze -- a winnable brush-fire battle that grew into a prolonged, expensive and dangerous war.
Like most departments in the region, the Orange County Fire Authority was ready for trouble. Forecasts called for humidity in the single digits and hot Santa Ana winds roaring in from the desert.
Prather put 30 extra crews on duty, roughly 100 firefighters. They added to the typical staffing of about 70 crews. He was paying firefighters overtime to have engines staffed and ready to go.
The size of those crews was one way that Orange County fell below the national standard. Most of the county's engines were staffed with three people. Four per engine is the voluntary minimum standard from the National Fire Protection Assn., a private organization that writes fire safety guidelines.
Crews with three firefighters work more slowly than larger crews, according to a study by the Insurance Services Organization, a national group that evaluates fire departments.
"When you lose one person on the crew, you're sacrificing safety," said Afrack Vargas, a spokesman for the California State Firefighters' Assn. "You're sacrificing another set of eyes. You're sacrificing another strong back to help in the incident. It makes a difficult situation that much more difficult."
State rules require that two firefighters be present as backup for every two that enter a burning building. With three on an engine, that's impossible.
Orange County fire officials say they can't afford larger crews.
"We have a budget, and there's only so much we can do within that budget," said Capt. Stephen Miller, the Fire Authority's spokesman.
In 2005, the Orange County firefighters union pushed for a local ballot measure that would have provided fire departments a larger share of revenue from Proposition 172, a half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 1993 to raise money for public safety agencies statewide. The bulk of the funding went to police.
The local measure, which would have added tens of millions of dollars to fire department budgets, ran into opposition from the county Board of Supervisors and ultimately failed at the polls.
Orange County, the sixth-wealthiest county in the state, has an annual firefighting budget of about $260 million. The Fire Authority has roughly one firefighter for every 1,100 people in the county's coverage area. But that figure climbs dramatically -- one firefighter for every 1,800 residents -- if only full-time, professional firefighters are counted.
By comparison, Ventura County has twice as many firefighters per capita, approaching 900. Los Angeles County's ratio of one firefighter per 1,500 residents is about 16% stronger than Orange County's.
Making matters harder for Orange County last Sunday, the department had dispatched some crews to other fires in Los Angeles County. Orange County immediately sent 15 engine companies -- a typical response under the state's network of mutual aid agreements.
Prather said that left the Fire Authority with 15 more engine companies than usual, in addition to help from other departments if things got bad in Orange County. He thought that would be enough.
The Santiago fire broke out 13 hours later. By then, the 11 city fire departments in Orange County had also dispatched substantial forces to Malibu. That deprived Prather of the backup he would normally have relied on.
"Sometimes, agencies can overcommit," said Anaheim Fire Chief Roger Smith. "But there is no one that you will find in California who would hold back resources because they didn't want to send it."
By 9 p.m. the Fire Authority noted in its incident reports that a lack of resources had "greatly hampered" its effort. The county had to call the state for help. The state turned to Nevada and Arizona. But those teams didn't arrive until days later.
The county also didn't receive early help from the state. A blue ribbon commission that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed following the 2003 fire season recommended that California buy 150 more fire engines for emergencies. Only 19 have been ordered, and none has been delivered.
"I was on that commission, and I know that these things take time," Prather said. "But we have to make sure that these recommendations don't just end up on the shelf because we can see exactly what will happen."
Prather said that if he had had 25 extra engines -- from the state and surrounding communities -- his crews could have beaten the fire before it crossed Santiago Canyon Road and threatened 3,000 homes.
Instead, the fire became a monster.
"A strong initial response is the protocol for wild-land fires," said Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters Assn. "You get them small before they become big."
By Monday morning the fire had consumed 7,500 acres, but it still might have been contained had the crews been able to get help from the air, Fire Authority officials said at the time. They noted in their incident report a "critical need for aircraft."
But high winds prevented most planes and helicopters from taking off.
The lack of aircraft prevented firefighters from making a stand on a ridge as 30-foot flames and smoldering embers bore down on Foothill Ranch, a wealthy neighborhood in Lake Forest. As residents evacuated, fire crews retreated into the neighborhood to fight the fast-moving blaze from city streets. Ash fell like snow, and strong hot winds snapped palm trees as they worked.
"Once it made its move, the fire was down here in three minutes," said Orange County Fire Capt. Robert Hutyan.
No homes in Foothill Ranch were lost, however. Fire officials partly credited housing codes that created a neighborhood with little exposed wood or combustible vegetation.
Between Tuesday morning and evening, the fire more than doubled in size. Again, high winds made it difficult for planes and helicopters to take off.
Making matters worse, more than a dozen military helicopters and cargo planes that could have delivered water to the fires were sitting on the ground.
The Marines and Navy had aircraft available, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that to prevent airborne collisions, it could not use the military planes unless its own people coordinated the flights.
The forestry department was stretched so thin that some of its air managers were supervising firefighters on the ground, said department Director Ruben Grijalva.
The state and the military finally worked out an agreement, which put an additional 14 helicopters and C-130 transports in the air Wednesday. By then, the Orange County fire had quadrupled in size, reaching almost 16,000 acres.
When Prather first complained publicly about the lack of state resources to fight the fire, some of his own men -- those who filled the voluntary ranks -- questioned the chief's priorities.
In March 2002, the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors, at Prather's recommendation, greatly reduced the firefighting responsibilities of the department's reserve force -- unpaid volunteers who respond as needed. Instead of fighting fires, most reservists now serve support roles and respond to medical emergencies.
Less than 10 years ago, the reserves numbered more than 600, almost half the total complement of the county Fire Department. Many volunteers didn't like the change and left.
Current volunteers, who spoke on condition that their names not be used for fear of retaliation, say their ranks have dwindled to around 200, although the department is authorized to have 390.
The department has 792 full-time firefighters. Prather said his department was too busy to provide the specific numbers of volunteers.
"Their numbers have been reduced dramatically, and that is a shame," said Bob Bell, a former Fire Authority board member, who voted against the changes.
"Chip Prather is a good leader," Bell said, "but he is decrying the lack of state resources" while his department has let the volunteer program languish.
Prather said there have been concerns that many volunteers did not respond to emergencies and were not trained as well as professionals. Research indicated that the volunteer program was losing people at a rapid rate.
"It was irresponsible to have these people who were . . . not able to maintain their training getting on rigs and going out to protect homes," Prather said. "This isn't an old boys club with a parade engine. People get hurt and die doing this."
But a January 2007 report by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission concluded that voluntary or reserve firefighters were an important part of regional fire protection, especially in county areas or jurisdictions that lack enough money to hire full-time staff. The study was part of San Diego County's effort to better organize what is now a hodgepodge of fire services in unincorporated areas.
By Thursday, the Malibu fire was being mopped up after blackening 4,565 acres and destroying six homes. With the Malibu fire and others coming under control, Orange County had so many resources Friday that it was sending crews to San Diego. Over the week, its fighting force grew to 1,100 people, drawn from all over the West. When the Santiago fire started, it had about 365.
"My firefighters have been busting their asses for five days without much sleep," Prather said, "but yet when things were starting to look better here they hopped in the rigs and went to protect people" in another county.
Times staff writers Mike Anton, Tony Barboza, J.P. Renaud and Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.