Orange County Fire Chief Reflects on a Year Rife With Challenges

December 24, 2020 Updated: December 27, 2020

IRVINE, Calif.—As the world nears the end of a grim year, indelible memories will remain for Orange County’s top firefighter, who led crews through devastating wildfires while navigating a pandemic.

Two particular dates stand out for Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) Chief Brian Fennessy: the day the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 a pandemic, and the afternoon two firefighters were gravely injured on the job.

The former called upon him to exercise great foresight in planning, the latter brought forth his compassion and sense of responsibility for others.

Silverado Fire

On Oct. 26, a fire erupted near Silverado Canyon that burned 12,466 acres and forced thousands to evacuate. Fennessy was working at the command center that afternoon when a colleague approached with dire news: Two hand crew members had been injured.

“Those are things that are frozen in your mind,” Fennessy told The Epoch Times in an interview reflecting on 2020. Initially, he didn’t know how severe the injuries were.

“I was afraid I was going to be visiting next of kin with a chaplain.”

He arrived at a hospital to find Dylan Van Iwaarden and Phi Le lying in critical condition from severe burns.

“The first few days are critical,” Fennessy said. “They were both on ventilators, and it was not a sure thing at that time that they were going to survive. … It was hard to get out of your mind when you knew their parents were in agony. To see the guys wrapped up head-to-toe was heartbreaking.”

He remains in frequent contact with the victims’ families, and said one has been healing at a remarkable pace, and is being treated at a hospital burn unit. The other firefighter is not healing as quickly.

“The biggest thing [in 2020] really was the injury of my firefighters,” Fennessy said. “Those are things you hope as a chief—that you won’t incur the loss or injury of any firefighter.”

The Year of the Pandemic

Fennessy’s memory is equally sharp when he recalls March 11, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic.

Shortly after the news dropped, Fennessy and his executive staff spent an entire day behind closed doors developing a response plan. His quick response allowed him to secure the personal protective equipment (PPE) his organization would need; it later became in short supply across the nation, and the OCFA shared it where it could.

Epoch Times Photo
Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy speaks at the unveiling of a new firefighting helicopter in Los Alamitos, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

“It really helped out because even just by being [several] days ahead of the curve, we were able to secure the PPE that we needed, that would last for the duration,” he said. “In fact, fire departments throughout the country contacted us to try to replicate what we had done.”

The OCHA also adopted new precautions to keep its firefighters safe. During their 48-hour shifts, firefighters are expected to maintain six feet of distance from colleagues and wear masks both at the station and while riding in firetrucks.

Hotel rooms were made available for employees who wanted to self-quarantine between shifts, to avoid exposing their families.

“I think what was really unique for us is that we understand the families, understand that firefighters are going to be exposed to all kinds of dangers and hazards and risks when they’re at work,” Fennessy said. “No family member expects that risk or … that danger to come home with their firefighters. And that caused a lot of concern among the families and the firefighters. No firefighter wants to go home, thinking they might have gotten sick while at work.”

Right now, about 60 of OCHA’s 1,100 firefighters are off work with the virus, and about an additional 15 are awaiting test results. Most didn’t contract the virus on the job, Fennessy said.

“It’s not from patient contact,” he said. “As long as they’re wearing the PPE, we find there’s little to no exposure risk. It’s when you go home and you’re off for that 96 hours, you’re just like everybody else if you’re not quarantining, or have a lot of kids. It’s spreading like it is anywhere else.”

Making Plans

Whether he’s overseeing a fire response or planning for possible mudslides, there’s one thing Fennessy has learned from 43 years on the job: the importance of good planning.

“I’ve never been through a pandemic, but I’ve seen the results of being decisive early and not acting quickly,” he said. “We just had a sense the pandemic was going to be bad. One thing I’ve learned over all these years is planning; prepare for the worst, as early as you can.”

A Job Well Done

As the year wraps up, Fennessy says he’s proud of his firefighters for helping keep the community safe.

The Silverado fire was followed in December by the Bond Fire, a wind-driven blaze that spanned 6,686 acres and destroyed several structures in Modjeska, Silverado, and Williams canyons. Although some homes burned in the blaze, firefighters were able to save many others, said Fennessy.

“I get a really good opportunity to watch them work, to see how much effort they put into saving strangers’ homes as if they were their own,” he said. “I’m just so proud of them. I’m always impressed when people rise to the occasion.”

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