Los Angeles

OCSD, OCFA respond to alleged Coastal Fire ‘chopper controversy’

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority issued a joint statement Thursday, responding to allegations that a long-standing rivalry between the two agencies caused a lessened response to May’s Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel. 

OCFA/OCSD


The fire, which burned over 200 acres and torched 20 homes and is speculated to have been caused by a downed SoCal Edison wire, began on May 11, and was not completely contained until May 17. 

Locals were quick to ask why there was only one water-dropping aircraft on scene, as the Sheriff’s Department used to have a pair of helicopters used for firefighting on standby. However, the water tanks were removed from the aircraft a little over three years ago, and in the case of a fire have to be bolted back on, which takes more than an hour. 

In recent years, the partnership between the two was also called to question when the Orange County Board of Supervisors reportedly demanded that they put differences aside and work together, after a series of incidents revealed that fire and sheriff’s pilots had been arguing over the radio.

These questions caused a slew of responses online, including an article posted by the Orange County Register, which the joint statement refers to specifically. 

“An article recently published in the Orange County Register called into question our response to the Coastal Fire, and we felt it important to communicate directly to those we serve,” the statement said.

It continued to offer an explanation of the earliest moments of the fire, and the first steps the two agencies took to protect the community.

“We worked together to ensure a quick and effective response. The OC Sheriff’s Department helicopter, which was on air patrol when the fire broke out, provided real-time aerial information to Orange County Fire Authority’s boots-on-the-ground effort. Thousands of homes were evacuated without any injuries and the swift response undoubtedly saved lives and dozens if not hundreds of additional structures,” the statement said. 

According to the statement, the OC Register received their information from a former OCSD employee, who was transferred from their Air Support squad for performance issues. 

“A rehashing of a years-old and long-resolved issue between our agencies served as the column’s focal point,” it continued.”From our perspective, this led readers to draw the conclusion that, if not for this brief past issue, our efforts during the Coastal Fire may have been different. This is not only untrue, it is unfair to the residents who lost their homes and the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect life and property.”

Brush Fire, Coastal Fire
Laguna Niguel, California May 11, 2022- Firefighters battle the Coastal fire at Coronado Pointe in Laguna Niguel Wednesday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Wally Skalij


The statement, which is signed by both OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy and OC Sheriff Don Barnes, stands by the response efforts of the two agencies, noting that the additional and inaccurate information brought criticism that could “cause additional trauma for a community still recovering and rebuilding.”

“Every decision made in the early moments of the Coastal Fire and throughout the days that followed was made in partnership and with the best interest of the community in mind,” the statement continued. “We stand by our response and are proud of the firefighters and law enforcement personnel who worked the front lines for days on end — first to aggressively fight the fire and safely evacuate residents, and then to provide comfort and care as the families returned.”

Still, the recirculation of the reportedly long-resolved issue caused a response from the OC Board of Supervisors again, as Supervisor Lisa Bartlett called for a “very thorough investigation and a very detailed report” on the allegations.

“Our hearts remain heavy for the residents whose homes were lost or damaged. Together, we stand with each of you as we recover and rebuild our community in the weeks and months ahead,” the statement said.

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