Two and a half weeks after a wildfire tore through South Lake Tahoe, the California Highway Patrol has released recordings of the first 911 calls it received about the fire.
Even as the Angora fire was still burning last month, questions started to arise about how CHP dispatchers handled those first critical 911 calls. Now, the CHP has launched an investigation into possible employee misconduct.
The first call came at 2:02 on the afternoon of the fire from a man on the golf course at Lake Tahoe Country Club.
Here is a transcript of that call:
Caller: "We see smoke coming off the mountain to the west of us." Dispatcher: "Uh-huh." Caller: "Slide Pole Peak?" Dispatcher: "Yeah, they're doing a control burn there."
Over the next nine minutes, four other callers were told the same thing by 911 dispatchers working at the CHP office in Truckee. The tapes document dispatchers telling callers that the smoke they were seeing from miles away was part of a controlled burn and so there was nothing to worry about.
Caller: "We're coming down Echo Summit, and I'm seeing white smoke on the side of..." Dispatcher: "Uh-huh, is that by the airport? That's a control burn."
But the United States Forest Services says because of windy conditions in Tahoe that day, there were no control burns.
It was actually an illegal campfire near Seneca Pond that got out of control. Flames were headed for the neighborhood along Upper Truckee Road, where it would destroy 254 homes.
"We feel very badly for the individuals that may have lost property," said CHP Assistant Chief Sal Segura.
Segura said it's not clear if the fire might have been nipped in the bud had it not been for the dispatching delay.
But Segura said two of the Truckee dispatchers have been reassigned to administrative duties while the CHP investigates.
"We're always concerned when we find that our employees failed to handle something -- or apparently at this point in time -- failed to follow proper protocol and policy," Segura said.
Less than a half hour after the first 911 call, CHP dispatchers were receiving dozens more. By then it was clear it was an out-of-control wildfire, but at least one dispatcher still seemed quite relaxed.
Dispatcher: "CHP." Caller: "What's up?" Dispatcher: "What's up? What's going on, buddy?"
The two reassigned dispatchers are veterans. One has 27 years of experience. The other has been on the job more than 17 years. The assistant chief said today these are not rookies.
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