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Firefighters Accused of Ignoring Blaze

Yorba Linda couple say union members allowed their dream home to burn because one of the owners belonged to a nonunion force.

March 30, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Orange County fire officials are investigating the complaint of a Yorba Linda couple who say county firefighters deliberately let their five-bedroom home and garage burn for almost an hour last December before putting it out.

Tricia and Jeff James maintain that unionized Orange County firefighters were slow to act once they discovered Jeff James was a firefighter at a department in the Los Angeles suburb of Vernon that was nonunionized.

Union officials at the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn. could not be reached for comment.

The allegations were voiced Tuesday when the couple took their complaint to county supervisors at their weekly meeting.

The Orange County Fire Authority, which employs county firefighters, has begun an in-house probe of the charges leveled by Tricia James at the meeting and also have brought in an outside investigator, officials said.

"We are going to go point-by-point and look at her charges and concerns," said Orange County Battalion Chief Ed Fleming. "We want to make sure that if they are true, we take the appropriate action." He said the probe may take four weeks.

After hearing the complaint Tuesday, Bill Campbell, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he asked Fire Chief Chip Prather to look into the allegations.

Among James' complaints was her recollection that a fire official said, "Who's the scab?" after he noticed a Vernon Fire Department sticker on several cars parked in the driveway. Jeff James is an engineer at the Vernon department. The couple said their dream home, a $1.1-million, 3,700-square-foot house that had a four-car garage, was a total loss. The cause of the fire was a faulty water heater, Tricia James said. They bought the home a month before the Dec. 7 fire.

The Fire Authority report on the incident does not indicate any delays or problems in fighting the fire, and there was no mention of a 56-minute delay that Tricia James recalled Tuesday.

At the meeting, she identified the man who allegedly made the crack as Capt. Dan Young, the incident commander, who is also a union vice president.

She said that about five hours later, after the fire was out, Young used her husband's T-shirt with a Vernon department insignia on it to wipe down the foyer floor.

Young could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Neighbors said that when the fire erupted about 10 p.m., it was mostly in the garage and on the garage roof and then spread to several cars parked in the Jameses' driveway.

An article about the fire in the Orange County Register on Dec. 9 quoted a neighbor as saying: "I think the firemen were doing their job, but if that was my house, I would have expected so much more. They were just leisurely walking around."

Another neighbor on Wednesday recalled hearing popping noises coming from the garage area. When police arrived, she said, bystanders were told the homeowner had a gun collection and to move away because ammunition was going off.

Tricia James acknowledged her husband kept a collection of guns inside a 1,100-pound safe, but that the ammunition was kept on top of the safe and away from their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter.

"Yes, the popping noises were from the ammunition going off, but that didn't last more than five to seven minutes," she said.

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