49 Fire: Where was Auburn Fire?

Wrong list initially used to dispatch
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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A dispatch error that resulted in a failure to call the Auburn Fire Department to the scene of last year’s 49 Fire was remedied upon its discovery. According to Ian Gow, chief of Placer Hills Fire Protection District and Placer County operational area coordinator, Placer County dispatch uses a list to decide which fire agencies need to respond to what areas when fires break out and assistance is needed. There are two sublists for the Auburn area. One is for North Auburn and one is for the city of Auburn, according to Gow. Gow said the city of Auburn list names Penryn, Loomis, Rocklin, Roseville and Foresthill as the closest agencies that would assist with a fire. The Auburn Fire Department is not on the list because it would already be on the scene. The North Auburn list calls on Placer Hills, Auburn Fire, Newcastle, Penryn and Colfax to respond. For a short time during the 49 Fire, dispatch used the Auburn city list to call fire agencies rather than the North Auburn list. So, the Auburn Fire Department was not called, according to Gow. However, this did not have an impact on getting fire agencies to the scene, Gow said. “There was no delay in getting any resources to that incident,” he said. “They caught it immediately. It did not delay any response at all.” Local residents have expressed some concerns to the Journal that fire agency response times were slower than normal that day, but Gow said this wasn’t the case, because the closest Cal Fire station is just minutes away on Atwood Road. “When your home is burning, when your worst nightmare is coming true, it must seem like hours,” Gow said. “We understand it seems like forever. It couldn’t have been. It couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes.” Joe Castelli, who lost his house on Creekside Place, said he disagrees. “The response times were terrible,” Castelli said Tuesday. Castelli said the fire was reported in the North Park subdivision at 2:22 p.m., but a command to send an engine to his neighborhood was not given until 3:10 p.m. “They totally ignored us,” he said. “Our neighborhood was left to burn.” According to Gow, the Placer County sublists have now been changed to make it clear which agencies should be called to fires in specific regions. “We made it easier for the dispatchers to use it when they are very busy,” Gow said. There are two types of areas fire agencies respond to: a state responsibility area and a local responsibility area. North Auburn is a state responsibility area, so Cal Fire was dispatched and Placer County agencies responded to assist at the incident, Gow said. Auburn Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi said he did receive a call from the state that day, because he is the operational coordinator for all fire agencies in one of the six regions of California. By the time D’Ambrogi received the call to request assistance from agencies in his region, Auburn Fire had already responded to the scene. When Auburn Fire became aware of the incident, they responded on their own, D’Ambrogi said. Jeff Brand, Cal Fire Auburn battalion chief and incident commander for the 49 Fire, said he didn’t make specific contact with Auburn Fire that day. “I don’t necessarily call the individual fire departments,” Brand said. “I just say I need 20 engines and dispatch filters that out.” Brand said during the fire he had established an organization of command, and he directed Auburn Fire to a subordinate commander when it arrived on scene. Brand said Tuesday afternoon he couldn’t verify where the department was sent or who sent it there, because he did not have his notes readily available. D’Ambrogi said he doesn’t have concerns about the department not getting dispatched, because there were still enough crews responding to the fire. “We had probably every available engine in Placer County going to that incident,” he said. “The system, the way it was designed, totally worked. There was room for error and that is what happened.” Auburn Firefighter Bill Brock-Jones responded to the 49 Fire. “It was like being in a war zone,” Brock-Jones said. “We were there from the initial time of the fire until 10 or 11 o’clock the next morning.” Auburn Firefighter John Williamson also responded to the incident that day. Williamson said Auburn Fire was given specific directions at the scene. “We were directed to do structure protection … right there at the mobile home park at KOA Way,” Williamson said. The crew was there the whole time preventing the fire from overcoming structures, and residents had already been evacuated, Williamson said. Gow said fire agencies feel horrible about the loss that occurred, but the situation just presented “too much fire.” “I’m sympathetic, people lost everything,” he said. “We at the fire service feel responsible for that. Those boys and girls did the best they could. We are heartbroken by what we didn’t save.” Gow said a past challenge has been all fire agencies talking on the same frequencies when dispatched, but a written policy is now in place to control that. “When we are dispatched, we are all told which radio frequency we will be talking to, and, more importantly, which tactical frequency we will be using,” he said. Gow said Cal Fire and Placer County are also working to make communication possible between fire agency dispatch computers. Because the fire was in the Auburn area, it was easy for those involved to think Auburn Fire was already on scene, D’Ambrogi said. “There was an assumption Auburn was already there in the initial response,” he said. Reach Bridget Jones at