Special Report: Residents escape flames after dispatchers say 'There's no fire in Bangor'
PART 1 :
Residents in the small Butte County community of Bangor still tell tales about the night they escaped the LaPorte Fire that burned more than 6,100 acres and destroyed 74 structures. The wind-swept flames sent people scrambling in the middle of the night last October.
Some of the fire victims said they were outraged that when they called the fire department to report the fire, many of them were told there was no fire in Bangor.
Many of the callers were told what they were seeing was the glow from the Cherokee Fire north of Oroville, and the Cascade Fire five miles south of Bangor.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, KRCR News Channel 7 requested two hours of the Butte Cal Fire 911 tapes from the night of Sunday, October 8 and early Monday, October 9. Those recordings revealed more than 50 people (Roughly 1 of every 13 residents in Bangor, population 646 ) called 911 to report a fire in Bangor.
Judy Dawson, who lives just off Darby Road on Paul Place, was one of the first to report a fire had just started along Darby Road. She called 911 at 11:24 p.m.
“A fire just started up next door…on Darby Road,” Dawson told a dispatcher at the Butte County Cal Fire Emergency Communications Center (ECC) in Oroville. She continued, saying "I don't like this... I might have to evacuate."
When the dispatcher informed her she might be seeing the Cascade Fire that was burning near Collins Lake she interrupted him saying "No....no....this is close."
Dawson’s home was one of 37 homes in Bangor that were later destroyed. Rosa Gomez lives across the street from Dawson. She called to report the fire on Darby Road at 11:28 p.m., saying "I can see the fire through the trees." She evacuated right after calling 911. Her home was also destroyed.
Three families who live on Darby Road estimate the LaPorte Fire started between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. when a tree fell onto powerlines at 167 Darby Road, about a half mile south of LaPorte Road. The lights started flickering on and off, and eventually Bangor was plunged into darkness. All of Darby Road lies in Butte County, a detail that would later become crucial in the confusion over the exact location of the fire, and which agency should respond.
By 11:30 p.m., several witnesses said the fire had burned across Darby Road and was blocking their escape, forcing residents on the south end of Darby Road take Vierra Road, a dirt back road, to escape the flames.
At 11:50 p.m., the 911 tapes included a call from a dispatcher from Yuba County, who called the Butte County Cal Fire ECC to make sure they were aware of a reported fire on Darby Road.
“You got something going at Darby and LaPorte, right?,” said the Yuba dispatcher.
“We have an engine on the way, but nothing confirmed yet,” said the Butte Cal Fire dispatcher.
“Oh, there’s a fire there, I’ve had four reports,” replied the Yuba County dispatcher. An officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also called in to report what he described as a large fire on Darby Road.
Butte County Cal Fire Unit Chief Darren Read said a single engine was sent to check the general area of LaPorte and Darby Roads in response to the calls from Judy Dawson and others. It was the only engine Cal Fire had available, because most of the county resources were committed to stopping the Cherokee Fire north of Oroville.
When Butte Cal Fire Engine 2165 checked the area of LaPorte and Darby Roads between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, Chief Read said the fire engine crew “checked the areas to their satisfaction and the fire was not in Butte County, per the engine operator.” Seeing no fire, Engine 2165 was released from the Bangor area and sent to a different emergency call.
Acting upon the information provided by Engine 2165, dispatchers proceeded to tell 911 callers definitively, there was “no fire in Bangor.”
Chief Read later told KRCR News Channel 7 that he could not confirm if Engine 2156 actually drove down Darby Road to check the specific addresses provided by some of the callers who were reporting flames near their homes.
As the night continued, more people continued jamming 911 with calls from Bangor. Some people called multiple times. A woman identifying herself as Theresa Brown called around 12:30 a.m., saying “my husband called earlier, there’s a fire, we’re watching it grow by the minute in Bangor.”
The dispatcher said “Ma’am, we’ve had two engines in the area that have confirmed there is no fire in Butte County, this is in Yuba County out near Collins Lake.”
Brown responded, “I’m telling you you’re wrong, I’m ready to flee my house, because the fire is coming up the hill, but you can believe me or not.”
Another caller, identifying himself as Chris Sommers called at 12:43 a.m., saying “In Bangor, there’s hundreds of acres on fire, and there’s no Cal Fire response here.
The dispatcher said, “It’s over in Yuba County, sir.”
Sommers replied “No, no, no, this is on my property in Bangor, I’m looking at it, it’s coming toward my house, this is a huge fire that is coming toward my house on LaPorte Road…..Station 55 should have been here an hour ago….This got goofed up because my wife called it in an hour ago.”
According to Cal Fire logs, a second engine arrived to check Bangor at 12:59 a.m., finally confirming there was a fire in Bangor. It was an hour and 45 minutes after the first calls to 911. The first mandatory evacuation order for Bangor was sent out by the sheriff’s office at 1:22 a.m.
Due to a lack of resources, and the large number of other fires burning in Northern California that night, Cal Fire did not get all the resources it requested from neighboring agencies. The fire burned to the center of Bangor by the early morning hours.
State, federal and local governments are working on an ‘after action’ report for the LaPorte Fire and several other October fires. The results of that report are not yet available.
To hear the 911 calls in their entirety, click here.
Seven months after the LaPorte Fire, the rebuilding process has begun for families who lost homes in the blaze that destroyed much of Bangor.
Marjorie Daley lost her home in the 5800 block of LaPorte Road that had been in her husband's family for several decades. She and her neighbors felt they were left to fend for themselves when dispatchers told them there was no fire.
Dispatchers told many callers what they were seeing was the neighboring Cascade and Cherokee Fires. The first firefighting crew that was sent to Bangor, apparently failed to spot the flames that residents on Darby Road said started around 11 p.m. Based on that fire crew’s report, dispatchers told subsequent callers that there was no fire in Bangor.
"I stepped outside and saw the flames," said Daley. "I called, I wanted someone to come help, I was told there was no fire."
Daley vividly remembers getting a call from her daughter around 11:45 p.m., alerting her about the fire in Bangor. Daley is a former volunteer firefighter. Instead of calling 911, her first reaction was to call the fire department on their non-emergency line, thinking it would elicit a faster response.
"(I told dispatch) There's a fire in my pasture," Daley recalls. "(The dispatcher) said 'No ma'am, there's not a fire.' I can see the flames in my pasture! (The dispatcher) said, 'No ma'am, there's no fire in Butte County, but if you feel threatened you can evacuate.' I slammed the phone down I was so angry."
Across the road from the Daley Ranch, Shirley Loomis was asleep inside her home. With her husband away on a hunting trip, she was home alone with her six labrador retrievers. When the flames got within 20 feet of her back door, she was awakened by her smoke detector. She called 911 to report the fire around 12:30 a.m.
Loomis said with her smoke alarm beeping loudly, she could barely hear what the dispatcher said next. On the 911 tape, the dispatcher tells Loomis, "There's no fire in Bangor right now." Loomis, replied "I'm sorry there's WHAT?" The dispatcher repeated, "There's no fire in Bangor, the fire is in Yuba County." The dispatcher eventually said they would send an engine.
After help didn't arrive within 20 minutes, she made a second call to 911 to report her home was almost entirely surrounded by flames.
Dispatch told her "We had an engine drive by, they saw no fire." On the 911 tape Loomis replied, "Oh yes there is! Oh my gosh! How can you not see it, you have to come in my gate, I have fire on three sides of me!" When a fire truck finally arrived around 1 a.m., her driveway had flames on both sides of it. The firefighters drove through her metal gate to reach her house. Loomis piled her six dogs into her Toyota Prius and raced away from the flames. She later learned her home had survived.
Throughout Bangor, neighbors had started alerting neighbors about the fire starting just after 11 p.m. This small, rural community 20 minutes southeast of Oroville has no cell service. With the power out, many people never got the evacuation notices that started at 1:22 a.m.
Marjorie Daley said "If it hadn't been for neighbors helping neighbors we would have lost lives that night."
Daley wants Cal Fire and the Butte County Board of Supervisors to consider providing more resources for fires like this. Daley said Cal Fire should have a better plan to send more engines.
"The winds were horrible, they probably couldn't save that side of the mountain or even my home," Daley said. "But had they sent help when they said they were sending help, they could have saved the heart of our town."
Loomis said after getting more than 50 calls reporting a fire in Bangor, the dispatchers needed to be more transparent with callers. "Not to say 'there's no fire in Bangor.' The whole town almost burned down."
Daley agrees, transparency is crucial during an emergency. After listening to several of the 911 calls for the first time, Daley angrily shook her head when she heard the dispatcher tell some callers that help was on the way.
"They didn't send help, he was trying to pacify callers to get them off his back. That's BS! That's not what he's paid for," Daley said.
"Tell dispatchers not to lie to people. If you are actually sending help, tell the truth. But if there's no one coming, (say) 'I'm sorry, we don't have adequate engines to send someone. Take measures to save your own lives.' That's plain and simple and that's the truth. Don't lie to people."
Inside the Butte County Cal Fire Emergency Communications Center in Oroville on October 8 -9, 2017, dispatchers were extremely busy, even before the LaPorte Fire broke out in Bangor.
Butte Cal Fire said from Sunday afternoon to Monday morning, dispatchers fielded 288 calls to 911, and responded to 18 wildland fires across the county. In most of those instances, the fires were stopped when they were relatively small.
Butte Cal Fire Chief Darren Read said to understand the response to the LaPorte Fire, you must put the events of the entire day into context.
When the first residents started reporting a fire near Darby and LaPorte Roads around 11:20 p.m., most of the county’s 23 fire stations were empty. Many firefighters had been sent to stop the Cherokee Fire which broke out north of Oroville around 9 p.m.
"I think command center staff and all the fire personnel did an excellent job that night,” Read said.
Two of the first calls reporting a fire in Bangor came from Judy Dawson and Rosa Gomez who live along Darby Road, about half a mile south of LaPorte Road.
The 911 tapes show Judy Dawson called 911 at 11:24 p.m. and said a fire had just started next to her home on Darby Road. She gave the dispatcher her address, saying "I don't like this, I may have to evacuate." The dispatcher informed her there was a fire a few miles away near Collins Lake. Dawson responded "No, no, this is close." Dawson's home was later destroyed.
Rosa Gomez, whose home was also destroyed, called 911 at 11:28 p.m. to report flames just down the road from her house on Darby Road. She told the dispatcher, “I can see the fire through the trees.” Dispatchers told both women they would have a fire engine check it out.
But the Gomez family didn't have time to wait. Gomez told KRCR News Channel 7, her husband jumped in his truck and drove through the flames to get to Cal Fire Station 55 to report the fire. But those firefighters were already out fighting the Cherokee Fire.
In the meantime, Gomez was collecting her grandchildren and personal belongings and quickly evacuating. She described the fiery scene, explaining that anyone who would have driven down Darby Road after 11:30 p.m. would have easily seen the flames. According to Gomez and her neighbor, the fire was so intense on Darby Road by that point, the flames blocked their escape. Gomez and her neighbor Kevin Hill both said they had to travel a dirt back road to get out of the fire’s path.
Kevin Hill said once he was out of harm's way, he found a place where he had cell service and used his cell phone to call 911 to report the fire on Darby Road. He told KRCR News Channel 7, he was transferred three times and eventually gave up before speaking to Cal Fire because he needed to find his wife in the confusion of the fire.
When asked to pinpoint if firefighters ever checked Darby Road that night, Chief Read said he could not confirm that Engine 2165 had actually traveled down Darby Road to visually check the specific addresses where two residents had reported flames near their homes at 11:24 p.m. and 11:28 p.m. Read said “they checked the area to their satisfaction and the fire was not in Butte County (yet), per the engine operator.” Darby Road is located entirely in Butte County.
In an October 24 verbal fire report to the Butte County Supervisors, Read had previously told supervisors the first engine that was sent to check reports of a fire in Bangor traveled from Berry Creek, using Robinson Mill Road and LaPorte Road, eventually turning around at Upham Road. Read stated from that location, the fire captain reported to dispatchers there was no fire in Bangor. He reported the only flames he saw were coming from the Cascade Fire in neighboring Yuba County, which was about five miles away. In his verbal report to county supervisors recounting the events of that night, Chief Read made no mention of firefighters not checking the two specific reports of flames on Darby Road.
As a result of that report from Engine 2165, the engine left Bangor behind, and was sent to check out another emergency call. Dispatchers started telling callers who reported flames in Bangor, “There's no fire in Bangor." When asked if that was an appropriate response to callers trying to report a fire, Read said "I think that could have been worded differently.”
Chief Read was on vacation in San Diego on the night of the fire. He said he cut his vacation short and returned to Butte County to oversee the response to the large fires. He and his team reviewed and critiqued the response to the LaPorte Fire with dispatchers and firefighters just as they do with any major fire. But there have been no official policy changes.
Read said "The delays people saw were due to a lack of resources. Literally most of our 23 fire stations were empty."
Butte Cal Fire Captain John Gaddie was supervising the dispatch center on what he described as an unprecedented night for wildfires.
"You can see what happened between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., all hell broke loose in Northern California."
Before the LaPorte Fire broke out, many of the county’s firefighters were sent to the Cherokee Fire north of Oroville.
"All those sequence of events with the Cherokee fire led us to interrogate maybe a little more decisively, ‘ma'am, do you really have a fire?’, because of what was occurring around the county,” Gaddie said. “We were sending resources to all parts of the county, and they were seeing the Cherokee Fire."
Gaddie admits there are areas where they could have done better.
"We need to do a better job of being a little bit more empathetic and patient. We were overwhelmed that night with the amount of calls coming in. It was something I have not seen," Gaddie said.
Chief Read agreed that lessons were learned. “Maybe we could narrow down the questioning a bit better, a bit differently. Instead of saying there's no fire on your property, we could ask more direct questions to try to determine that with people who call 911," Read said. "We've learned from it, and we'll move forward, hopefully this never happens again.”
Read said no one has been fired, re-assigned or re-trained in the wake of the LaPorte Fire. California’s Office of Emergency Services said state and federal authorities are reviewing the LaPorte Fire and other Northern California wildfires that broke out in October. Those agencies will prepare an after action plan which is still pending.