Image: Firefighters
Autumn Cruz  /  AP
Firefighters keep watch on a prescribed burn set to fight a wildfire in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on June 24
updated 7/14/2007 10:42:46 AM ET 2007-07-14T14:42:46

Authorities delayed responding to a wildfire that destroyed 254 homes last month because two emergency dispatchers initially dismissed 911 calls reporting the Lake Tahoe blaze, transcripts released Friday show.

The dispatchers have been reassigned while the California Highway Patrol investigates, authorities said. Their dismissals caused a seven-to-nine minute delay in the initial response to the blaze, the transcripts show.

On a tape of five calls answered by the CHP Truckee field office, dispatchers tell callers the smoke they are seeing is from a controlled burn — a purposely set fire which is often used to clear forests. The smoke actually came from a fire that ultimately destroyed 254 homes and burned 3,100 acres of mountain wilderness.

Caused delayed response
“I’m on the golf course, it’s — uh — Lake Tahoe Country Club, and we can see smoke coming off the mountain to the west of us,” a man reports, according to a transcript of the first call received by the CHP’s Truckee communications center at 2:02 p.m. on June 24.

“Yeah. Yeah, they’re doing a — a control burn there,” the dispatcher responds.

“Thank you,” the unidentified male caller responds. “Sorry to bother you.”

Capt. Gary Ross, commander of the CHP field office in Truckee, said their dismissals caused a delayed response to the fire, started June 24 by an illegal campfire. It took firefighters eight days to contain the blaze, at a cost of $12.1 million.

The dispatchers also did not follow CHP policy, in which they are instructed to keep callers on the line and transfer them to a local fire department in such situations. Instead, they let the callers hang up.

The dispatchers told at least five callers that the smoke was from a controlled burn — a purposely set fire which is often used to clear forests.

The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to a message late Friday from The Associated Press, but The Sacramento Bee reported there were no controlled burns in the area on the day the wildfire started.

As additional calls came in to dispatchers on the afternoon the fire began, they became less sure about the existence of a controlled burn.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the governor was concerned.

“We take this matter very seriously,” said spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart. “We are awaiting the outcome of the CHP investigation.”

Homeowner Tony Colombo, 52, who lost his home in the fire, said he didn’t want to “play the blame game” but added, “I find it disgusting, because we knew this basin was a tinderbox.”

“There were people who dropped the ball in the jobs,” he added.

The CHP said it will not release the names of the dispatchers. One is a 27-year CHP veteran and the other has been a dispatcher for 17 years, Ross said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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