High atop Loma Ridge is the Orange County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Consider it the main command center during a big disaster. From there, 150 or more emergency responders and public officials can coordinate efforts to deal with anything ranging from a major earthquake to a mass shooting. It’s hard to overstate the facility’s vital importance for dealing with emergencies, yet multiple Orange County grand jury reports—including one released on June 20–indicate that the EOC itself is tremendously vulnerable.
It’s remarkable the grand jury has issued four reports on threats posed to the EOC, dating back to 1998. But it’s even more remarkable that 11 years ago, the facility was nearly destroyed the first time it was activated in a full-scale disaster (a fact the grand jury mentioned much too briefly in its most recent report). That instance was the horrendous 2007 Santiago Fire, which ultimately burned more than 28,000 acres, destroyed 42 structures and damaged another 14.
The EOC’s vulnerability to fire isn’t surprising, given it sits on the edge of a massive “Very High Fire Hazard Area,” according to Cal Fire. In fact, just a couple of hours into the Santiago Fire (which burned for 19 days before firefighters contained it), the fire threatened the EOC. The Orange County Fire Authority’s (OCFA) after-action report on that disaster paints a vivid picture of the threat posed to the county’s main command center dealing with the fire:
“During the evening hours of Sunday, Oct. 21, within the first two hours of the fire, the county EOC, which is located at the [Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s (OCSD)] Loma Ridge Communications Facility, was surrounded by fire. The EOC and Emergency Communications Bureau staff were sheltered in place during this time, and an OCFA Strike Team was assigned to protect the facility. Access was restricted for over two hours as a result of this threat. Firefighters initiated an offensive backfiring operation, anchoring it to the single-lane road that provides access to the EOC. This essential facility remained fully staffed and operational during this time, and structure-protection resources were posted outside to deflect the fire and protect the facility in the event it became necessary. Firefighters burned out brush and grass fuels ahead of the main fire and moved quickly to cut off the main fire. The backfire was successfully completed and eliminated the direct threat to the facility.”
Though that was more than a decade ago, the grand jury said in its June 20 report that the EOC is still vulnerable. Titled “Can the Emergency Operations Center Survive a Catastrophic Event?,” the report states, “During multiple tours of the EOC facility, the grand jury noted issues that present major concerns should there be a large-scale disaster such as a brush fire or earthquake.”
That report highlighted four major safety findings at the EOC. The first, and arguably most important, is that the 1.3-mile-long Loma Ridge Road—the main access route into the facility—is “dangerous.” The roadway has “deterioration and earth slippage,” “blind curves,” and “very steep drop-offs with no barriers,” which the grand jury called “inordinately dangerous.”
“These conditions pose significant danger to the staff working at the EOC on a daily basis,” the report continues. “During a disaster, when many more vehicles are using the road to and from the facility, safety issues are magnified.”
Of course, there’s an alternate access road into the EOC, but the grand jury discovered that route is somehow even worse. “This is the Loma Ridge Jeep Trail, a very narrow dirt path,” the report says. “Due to its unpaved condition, it is unsuitable for emergency or other vehicles traveling to or from the EOC.”
Then there’s the issue with dry brush and weeds; despite what happened in 2007, there’s apparently a lot of it once again surrounding the EOC. “[T]he grand jury noted an abundance of overgrown weeds at the edge of the road and on the shoulders, obstructing many of the areas where vehicles must maneuver when trying to pass each other,” the report states. “Not only does this overgrowth affect the ability to drive along the road, [but] it [also] presents a serious fire hazard.”
What’s more, the grand jury discovered that efforts to control all that brush have fallen apart in recent years. According to the report, the OCSD is responsible for maintaining the land around the EOC; though it hired a contractor to do the work, that contract hasn’t been funded for five years.
“Since 2013, the Sheriff has requested $950,000 each year to address the deterioration of the road, but the Board of Supervisors has not provided that funding,” explains the grand jury report.
As if all that weren’t enough, the grand jury also noted that inside the EOC, “Office equipment and storage cases have not been properly secured to work stations or to the walls.” In an earthquake, “equipment could be damaged or made inoperable, potentially impairing emergency operations.”
County officials, who have 60 days to respond to the report, had no comment for this story. “The county will be formally responding to the grand jury report at a later date,” County Public Information Manager Molly Nichelson said in a July 11 email.
Similarly, OCSD Public Information Officer Carrie Braun said her department expects to file its official response toward the end of this month.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.