Grand jury report higlights failures during LNU Lightning Complex wildfire


Damage from the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire in rural Vacaville as it appeared in August 2020. (File photo by Matthew Keys for Solano NewsNet)

At least one firefighting agency had advance warning that a lightning-sparked wildfire was close to crossing into Solano County one hour before it actually did, according to a new report issued by the Solano County civil grand jury earlier this month.

Despite the advance warning, firefighters were ill-prepared to handle the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire when it tore through rural portions of Solano County last year, with communication and leadership failures blamed for the lack of preparation and response.

Those failures included firefighters not establishing an incident command post within the first few hours of the fire — the exact opposite of what national fire preparedness and response standards call for — and a lack of evacuation plans that resulted in first responders essentially “winging it” when it came to moving residents to safety during the fire, the civil grand jury asserted.

The problems were exacerbated in part by the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic, which started earlier in the year and created a shortage of available human firefighting resources. Still, city and county leaders knew about communication, preparedness and leadership problems among the various emergency agencies for years and did little to remedy them, the civil grand jury alleged.

The outcome was a catastrophic loss of property in Solano County during the August 2020 wildfire, which destroyed more than 200 homes in rural parts of Winters, Vacaville and Fairfield. Two residents were killed in the wildfire. More complained that they never received emergency alerts warning of the fire or associated evacuation orders.

When the fire was contained, few agencies offered solutions moving forward. Instead, most congratulated themselves for a job well-done, the civil grand jury reported. Those who spoke with the civil grand jury said progress is often hampered by a sense of camaraderie within the various fire agencies, one where firefighters feel they have to walk on eggshells in order to avoid offending their peers. The outcome is one where problems continue to compile while solutions are difficult to find.

A Lack of Leadership

The U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a standardized set of guidance and instructions to help local, state and federal officials coordinate a response to a large-scale emergency like the multi-county LNU Lightning Complex Wildfire. Among other things, NIMS calls for the first responding fire crew to immediately implement an incident command post (ICP), which provides a centralized location for emergency responders to effectively communicate and collaborate with each other.

Firefighters from the Vacaville Fire Protection District were the first to respond to reports that the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire was crossing into Solano County by way of Blue Ridge Road. For the first five hours of the fire, no one established an ICP until much later in the morning.

The lack of a command post meant firefighters “wasted approximately two to four hours of valuable time after the fire entered Solano County,” the civil grand jury report said. It also meant firefighters and other first responders had to improvise evacuation plans between the late evening hours of August 18 and the early morning of August 19 when the fire was at its peak in rural parts of the county.

A command post was finally established at a church along Leisure Town Road — not by local firefighters, but by a crew from the state’s firefighting agency, CAL FIRE. By then, the wildfire had spread to multiple parts of the county and was threatening hundreds of homes and ranches.

Communication Problems

In the early morning hours of August 19, a rural Vacaville firefighter told emergency dispatchers that they were facing the possibility of losing a main communications tower atop Mount Vaca, according to dispatches reviewed by Solano NewsNet.

The tower eventually went offline, knocking out a frequency used by firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders and wiping out a Pacific Gas & Electric firefighting camera in the area.

It was one of several communication problems experienced by the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire, a byproduct of years of poor planning and consolidation among the various emergency agencies in the region.

Years before the fire, a previously-empaneled civil grand jury warned that the county’s reliance on antiquated communication systems and equipment jeopardized public safety. Some officials responded by upgrading equipment and systems at a localized level, as the Benicia Police Department did, while making pacts with other agencies and communities to modernize public safety communications.

But fractures still exist: At the moment, Solano County uses three different radio system: An analog one and two different digital ones. Benicia and Vallejo use a digital system based in the San Francisco Bay Area, while Fairfield, Vacaville, Suisun City and the Solano County Sheriff’s Office use a separate digital system. The rural firefighting districts and the California Highway Patrol continue to use analog radios.

The decision to use different systems means some firefighters have to carry as many as three radios in order to effectively communicate with other agencies during a large-scale emergency situation, the civil grand jury found. This problem created mounting communications problems in rural Solano County during the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire, with some firefighters not able to hear or respond on frequencies used by CAL FIRE and other agencies, according to a firefighter who spoke with Solano NewsNet on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

It wasn’t until January 2021 — several months after the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire — that the seven incorporated cities as well as the county banded together to create a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) that, among other things, proposed a single communications standard. As of today, a written document that outlines the purposes of the JPA still remains in draft form and has not been formally adopted by any local government.


In the immediate aftermath of a large-scale emergency, an after-action report is typically created and filed by a public safety agency that is involved in providing services or response. Those reports offer insight into what went right during an emergency and, perhaps more critically, what areas of improvement were discovered. They can provide a framework that helps lawmakers set policies and public safety agencies put into practice critical steps to ensure life and property are protected during an emergency situation.

While the after-action reports are considered best practice in most emergency situations, they’re required by law when California’s governor declares a state of emergency, as Gov. Gavin Newsom did during the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire.

Despite the response from nearly every public safety agency in Solano County, only two — the City of Vacaville and the Solano County Office of Emergency Services — provide after-action reports following the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire, the civil grand jury report said. Despite firefighters from the Vacaville Fire Protection District being among the first to respond to the scene, the agency never created an after-action report, nor did officials from the Fairfield Fire Department or the Vallejo Fire Department.

Even if a written report wasn’t filed, fire officials had the opportunity to weigh in on best practices when they held an in-person, after-action debrief session once the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire was contained. But instead of putting forward their best practices and areas of improvement, firefighters “spent the time congratulating themselves on the fine job they had done,” the civil grand jury report said.

It was the byproduct of an environment where firefighters are too cautious to avoid offending their peers, according to fire personnel who spoke with the civil grand jury.

“Relationships in the county between the different groups are very volatile,” one firefighter said, adding that fire personnel often work hard to avoid offending each other.

The grand jury concluded that the type of forum created after the LNU Lightning Complex wildfire didn’t encourage free discussion, which meant solutions weren’t offered on ways local governments and the county could better prepare for a large-scale calamity in the future. The agency said written reports submitted directly to an emergency facilitator may facilitate more-candid discussions in the future.

“Because fires are becoming a part of Northern California’s new normal, there is no time to wait,” the civil grand jury concluded. “Solano County and the cities within the county are out of time, and must act now before the next

catastrophic incident occurs.”

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