Friday night, February 20, a eucalyptus tree caught on fire in the 600 block of Windmill Ranch Road in Olivenhain. Around 8:00 p.m., residents Nadine and Robert noticed what they described as a “giant torch” on a neighbor’s backyard 45-foot tree. Robert dialed 911.
Using his land line, Robert claims he stayed on hold for five minutes before 911 answered. Another neighbor said he had been on hold for seven minutes.
The homeowners were not at home at the time. Robert was standing in front of his house, on hold. His wife Nadine, knowing the rural area’s history of previous wildfires, was going door-to-door alerting neighbors.
A fire truck from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department came from the east, heading west on El Camino del Norte. The truck mistakenly passed the house and the burning tree as it headed toward Rancho Santa Fe Road.
Robert tried to flag down the truck, wondering why a Rancho Santa Fe Fire Dept. unit responded first (Encinitas’ fire station #6 is three blocks away). The fire truck quickly returned to the fire, and Encinitas units also responded. The fire was put out quickly with some damage to a few outbuildings.
Encinitas Fire Dept. battalion chief John Blumeyer says the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection engine was responding to a report of a possible illegal burn. A caller had smelled smoke in the area but did not give the department an exact address. His department received the call from 911 dispatch at 8:06 p.m. and responded.
911 calls should be automatically routed to the local police agency or, if near a freeway, to the California Highway Patrol. But both the CHP and Encinitas’ Blumeyer confirmed, that may not always be the case.
“With cell phones, dispatch does not get an exact address,” Blumeyer said. He added it depends on which cell tower the phone hits, as to which agency gets the first call. If possible, it is better to call 911 from a land line, as dispatchers then have an exact address.
Most North County fire agencies receive their response calls from a shared dispatcher, NorthCom, run through RSF Fire. While Blumeyer couldn’t explain why it took so long for the sheriff’s dispatch to answer the 911 calls, he did explain that with so many cell phones, you’ll sometimes have 30 people calling about the same things, and the system gets overwhelmed.
Historical footnote: In the Harmony Grove fire of 1996, and the 2007 Witch Creek fire, the Encinitas community of Olivenhain was hit in its eastern boundary and evacuations of people, pets, and horses were ordered, due to the large amount of open space, shrubs, and trees — mostly quick igniting eucalypti. In the Witch Creek fire, as the fire swept from the east through Rancho Santa Fe, local residents credit a change in wind patterns that pushed the quickly approaching fire line southwest, rather than into the rural community of Olivenhain.