A wildfire that burned dozens of structures in Orange County last month was sparked by an ember from a fire that erupted days earlier in roughly the same area, authorities said Monday.
The revelations come amid questions over how firefighters battled the Canyon 2 fire. Some critics have said fire officials did not respond to the blaze aggressively enough. Both the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the board of the Orange County Fire Authority have launched investigations into the agency’s response.
The first fire, known as the Canyon 1 fire, started Sept. 25 and was declared 100% contained Oct. 4. Crews had stopped monitoring it for hot spots by Oct. 9, when an ember hidden in scorched oak brush from that blaze was carried 80 feet by the wind and started a second wildfire, known as Canyon 2.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue Chief Randy Bruegman said first responders followed standard procedures but were simply caught off guard by fire, which was fanned by intense winds and heat.
The Canyon 2 fire started about 60 feet outside the containment line of the Canyon 1 blaze. It burned more than 9,200 acres and destroyed 25 structures, including more than a dozen homes. Thousands of Anaheim Hills residents were displaced during the firefight.
“This clearly was the perfect storm,” Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said in an interview Monday. “And too many pieces failed to come together. The public is going to want to know — if those things had not happened, could those homes have been saved?”
The Canyon 2 fire broke out as firefighters across the West were flooding into Northern California to battle a series of deadly blazes that had exploded the previous night.
Among those traveling to wine country was the crew in Anaheim Hills, nearest where the Canyon 2 fire would ultimately begin. The crew had left amid red-flag conditions and without their positions being backfilled by other firefighters, which Spitzer said “should never happen.”
He suggested that firefighters should have continued monitoring the Canyon 1 fire days after it’d been declared contained because of the weather.
Bruegman said those kinds of choices should be left to the “people on the ground.”
“Things happen in the fire service, it’s not a 100% science,” Bruegman said. “The fact of the matter is the people on the ground thought they had everything out.”
While the investigations into the county’s response continues, Bruegman said his agency has suspended the protocol that mandates that the Orange County Fire Authority be the first responders to vegetation fires in the city rather than Anaheim’s fire department.
Anaheim fire spokesman Daron Wyatt said changing the protocol wouldn’t have mattered with the Canyon 2 blaze because of powerful Santa Ana winds.
“Once those embers got into that fresh vegetation there was nothing we could do with that wind to stop it,” Wyatt said.
The Canyon 1 fire was caused by a Caltrans road flare that was kicked into the grass by another vehicle on the 91 Freeway, officials said.
“We regret that our road flare may have been involved in starting Canyon Fire #1 and recognize the impact this fire had on the community,” Caltrans said in a statement. “The safety of the traveling public and our employees is our top priority. Caltrans worked closely with the Anaheim Fire Department during the investigation and we have already begun reviewing our existing policies and procedures to look for ways we can make improvements.”
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7:35 p.m.: This article was updated with statements from Anaheim and Orange County officials.
This article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.