Catalytic converter caused Freeway fire

Firefighters try to suppress a fire in a structure in Yorba Linda on the Freeway fire in November, 2008

Investigators have released a report that points to a catalytic converter as the cause of the Freeway fire that burned 203 houses and 30,305 acres on November 15 in southern California. Honeycomb-shaped pieces from the interior of a catalytic converter were found, but investigators said they probably will never know exactly from which vehicle they came.

The fire forced the evacuation of 40,000 residents in the counties of Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino.

California: Freeway fire report released

Map, Freeway Complex
Map, Freeway Complex, from OCFA AAR.

The Orange County Fire Authority has released a 128-page report (large 8Mb file) about the devasting Freeway Fire that started November 15, 2008 in southern California and destroyed 203 homes in Orange County, including the communities of Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills.

The Orange County Register has an excellent article on the report, but here are some excerpts outlining some of the key issues from their account:


The major recommendations include improving radio communications, training crews in battling house fires near wildland areas, working with local water agencies to identify and rectify weaknesses in water systems, and developing a rapid-mobilization plan in large-scale emergency situations.

Yorba Linda fire
Firefighters try to suppress a fire in a structure in Yorba Linda on the Freeway fire in November, 2008.

Nearly 18 months after the Santiago fire raced through Orange County’s canyons, tight economic times have forced the Fire Authority to postpone several major recommendations after that fire, including replacing its part-time hand crew with a full-time crew and adding a fourth firefighter to wildland engines to meet federal standards. The same recommendations were echoed in the Freeway Complex review.

The plan was to pinch off the fire early. But hundreds of gallons of water destined to be dropped by helicopters on the fire had to be diverted and dropped on a Corona fire engine crew that had been overrun by flames after going off-road to try to fight the flames. The Corona crew’s decision placed them in a “dangerous position,” between the fast-moving fire and unburned brush, the report said. The crew was saved, but flames raced west toward Yorba Linda, throwing embers more than a mile in front of the fire.

Off-duty Fire Authority crews were mounting their own defenses, hijacking three engines and heading to the firefight, creating serious safety and accountability issues. Command staff scrambling for extra engines to send to the firefight spent up to 12 hours trying to find the maverick engines, the report said.  “These firefighters are heroes,” Fire Authority union President Joe Kerr said. “These firefighters came in off-duty to try to do everything they could to save homes. A lot of homes were saved because of them. You’re not going to find more dedication than that.”

“We take crew accountability very seriously,” Concepcion said. “We want to make sure this never happens again.”  The involved firefighters have been interviewed but were not disciplined, Kerr said.

Two strike teams – a total of 10 fire engines – were ordered by Battalion Chief Rick Reeder to stage at Station 53 on East La Palma in Yorba Linda to get ahead of the fire. “In my mind, what was burning in Corona was already done,” Reeder said. “It was not the piece to worry about.”

Strike team leaders ignored Reeder’s order, self-dispatching instead to Corona, the report said. With the original order unfilled, strike teams did not arrive into Yorba Linda until 11 a.m. – nearly 2 hours later. The first Yorba Linda house was already burning. Command officers have a “certain amount of latitude,” Concepcion said. “They must have thought there was something more pressing in Corona,” he said.

Fire stations were emptied to fight the Laguna fire in 1993, but entire OCFA battalions were left fully staffed during the Freeway Complex fire, officials said. “We had two fires burning close to each other, and we didn’t know what caused them,” Concepcion said. Extra strike teams were ordered from other counties, but it took time for them to arrive.

Multiple new fires in southern California

More fires have started in southern California and are being pushed by the Santa Ana winds. We will post maps of the fires as they are available.

“Freeway” fire near Corona and Yorba Linda

UPDATE @ 10:07 p.m. Saturday

The Freeway (or Corona or Yorba Linda) fire and the Landfill (or Brea) fire are still two separate fires and have not burned together yet. However, firefighters are confident that they will merge and it could happen as early as dawn on Sunday. If they merge at Carbon Canyon Road (Highway 142) it will be a real challenge for firefighers to protect the homes in that area if they have fires approaching from two different directions.

UPDATE @ 8:13 p.m. Saturday

Below is a screen capture from infrared imagery taken by a U.S. Forest Service research aircraft at 2:30 p.m. today. the lighter brown areas are burned, and the red is active fire. You can view the original imagery, and zoom and pan, by clicking HERE.

At that site you can then click on “Local Area Map for the Freeway Fire (Google Maps) with thermal overlay” which will overlay the thermal map over a Google street map. Be patient, it takes a while to load. Then you can toggle on or off the overlay by checking the box on the left side (because the overlay obscures the Google map).

The last size reported on the fire late this afternoon at 9:00 p.m. was that it is 2,000 5,870 acres and 5% contained.

Structures lost on the Freeway fire, according to a spokesman on the fire:

  • 14 structures in Corona
  • 10 in Anaheim Hills
  • One 40-unit apartment complex in Anaheim Hills
  • 30 structures in Yorba Linda

More information is available about earlier report about the two firefighters that were injured, from Jon Dorsey of the CalFire Southern Operations Center.

At approximately 10:00 hrs, 1 Fire Captain, 1 Engineer and 2 Firefighters from Corona City Fire were injured while performing direct attack on the fire in the Green River Community. They were overcome by fire and all four suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries, with two receiving minor burns. Two were treated and released from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, while the others were sent to Corona Regional Medical Center, where one remains at this time.

The high wind warning has been canceled, but the red flag warning will continue until 4 p.m. Sunday. Temperatures will remain in the 80s until Wednesday, when it should be cooler.

UPDATE @ 4:42 p.m. Saturday

Below is a map showing thermal imagery from a satellite. The red areas are the two fires west of Corona in the Yorba Linda, Brea, and Anaheim areas. The western most one is the Brea or Dump fire. The eastern most one is the Freeway fire. It appears that this imagery is from late this afternoon. The Brea fire seems to have crossed the 57 freeway, and we already knew the Freeway fire was well established south of the 91.

Click on the map to see a larger version.


UPDATE @ 2:27 p.m. Saturday

A 250-unit apartment complex south of the 91 freeway near Santa Ana Canyon Road and some single family dwellings in the same area are fully involved.

Here is an updated map that shows the approximate location of the Freeway fire west of Corona. Click on it to see a larger version.


UPDATE @ 1:45 p.m. Saturday

The fire crossed the 91 freeway in two places and 3,100 homes in the Anaheim Hills area (south of 91 and west of 241) are under an evacuation order.

11:40 a.m. Saturday

The DC-10 air tanker making a drop on the Freeway fire near Corona. It dropped continuously for 10 seconds, much longer than smaller air tankers. Oddly, there was a smaller twin-engine plane flying closely on the side of the DC-10, unlike lead planes which fly some distance ahead of air tankers.

Here is a map that shows the approximate location of the Freeway fire. Click on the map to see a larger version.

This fire, named Freeway, started late this morning and as of 11:40 a.m. PT has already burned 800-1,000 acres and has damaged or destroyed 12 homes. It is on the north side of the 91 freeway near Green River Road. It has burned into Yorba Linda where evacuations are in progress and some homes burned near Merryweather Circle.

An engine crew was burned over according to LA channel 7. Two firefighters have minor injuries and were treated at a hospital.

Fire in Brea (“Landfill” fire)

UPDATE @ 3:40 p.m. PT Saturday

The fire has burned quite a distance to the west and jumped the 57 freeway for a while but firefighters picked up that portion that crossed the freeway. A reporter from Fox 11 is at the fire edge on Wildcat Way just north of W. Lambert Road in Yorba Linda. HERE is a link to a map of that location.

Farther to the east at Hidden Hills Rd. and Greencrest Dr. many mega-mansions are burning to the ground. The situation is complicated by the fact that there is no water pressure at all in the water system. Firefighters are emptying the tanks in the engines, then leaving the area to get water, then returning again.

The director of the Yorba Linda Water District said that there are multiple pumping stations that pump water into some of the higher elevations that are burning now, and at least one of the pump stations burned. They are investigating the possibility of bringing in a pump to replace the one that burned. So… the fire suppression infrastructure works fine… until there is a fire. Just a idea: Make the pumping stations resistant to fire.

11:40 a.m. Saturday

This is a new fire a mile or two or three west of the Freeway fire. It is smaller than the Freeway fire, but no additional information is available. It may have been a spot from the Freeway fire.