Public records reveal it took South Tucson firefighters 23 minutes before asking for help in fighting a blaze that devastated Micha’s Mexican Restaurant two weeks ago.
The decision by the short-staffed fire department, experienced firefighters said, is the primary reason the fire was able to spread through the popular restaurant.
As a general rule, experts say an uncontrolled fire doubles in size every minute it burns. By the time the assistance call was made, the fire had burned from the kitchen through the roof, the Star has learned.
It was an alarm company that initially called the city of Tucson’s 911 dispatch system shortly before 10 p.m. on April 14, records show. Tucson handles the fire dispatching for the South Tucson department.
The call did not report a structure fire, instead, only reporting that a fire alarm had been triggered at the family owned eatery at 2908 S. Fourth Ave.
A mutual-aid agreement between the two cities requires Tucson to send firefighters to all structure fires, but a report of an alarm going off instead sends a fire truck — with three firefighters aboard — from the South Tucson department.
Radio calls between South Tucson firefighters and 911 dispatchers, obtained by the Arizona Daily Star, revealed that at 10 p.m. a firefighter reported seeing smoke coming from the roof.
Unsure of what the cause of the smoke was the firefighters did not ask for help, which would eventually require 30 firefighters and three ladder trucks from the Tucson Fire Department, and instead opted to continue their investigation.
Manuel Amado, who was named South Tucson’s new chief of police and public safety director with oversight of the fire department in November, said he was told the three firefighters followed established protocols when responding to the Micha’s fire.
However, Amado said he is still investigating how the fire was handled and that a number of questions he has remain unanswered. “But I am still learning the business,” said Amado, who has worked in law enforcement for 28 years.
During the initial stages of the fire, the three firefighters laid out hoses before entering the restaurant and — down a firefighter from the national standards — it took longer than normal to prepare various emergency equipment before climbing a ladder to visually inspect the roof, South Tucson firefighters have told Amado.
It was only when two of the three firefighters went inside the restaurant — with a third staying outside as part of adopted strategy to provide safety to his fellow firefighters inside — that they first saw flames in the kitchen.
The fire was large enough by then that it had already burned a hole in the ceiling — firefighters reported being able to see the night sky, records indicate.
It was at that moment that they called for help and began to douse the fire. The time, according to records, was shortly after 10:23 p.m.
The fire in the kitchen was quickly put out by South Tucson firefighters, reports indicate, but it had already spread to the roof.
A full response from the Tucson Fire Department was necessary to put out the fire more than an hour later.
A cause for the fire is still under investigation.
Cory Lakosky, the former South Tucson Fire chief, said he has no doubt mistakes were made in fighting the fire.
While a simple alarm code isn’t enough to trigger a mutual response from the city of Tucson, Lakosky said South Tucson should have asked for help as soon as they saw smoke coming from the restaurant.
It is better to ask for help early, he said, noting that an assistance request can easily be called off if it is not needed. It is a better alternative than waiting, which simply allows the fire to grow.
Lakosky resigned, along with 16 other South Tucson firefighters, earlier this year after then-City Manager Sixto Molina announced a reduction of staffing levels from four firefighters on its fire engine to three per shift.
The decision was based on the city’s dwindling budget, but Lakosky and others argued the plan risked the safety of the community and firefighters and was counter to national standards of having at least four firefighters staff an engine.
Hours after discussing the issue with the Arizona Daily Star, Lakosky said he was suspended until his resignation became effective, which was a few days later.
Lakosky said he doesn’t put the blame on any of his former colleagues, but said the current department no longer has the collective experience it had just a few months ago.
The South Tucson City Council’s cuts in the fire department are less severe than what Molina had considered just a few months earlier — eliminating the entire department. The cuts were one of the largest issues in a recall election earlier this year that led to voters ousting then-Mayor Ildefonso Green and Councilmen Rufino Cantu, Robert Larribas and Carlos Romo.
Bob Teso, the city’s new mayor, said restoring staffing levels at the fire department is one of his top priorities.
A lack of resources hampers the department’s ability to provide other services when there is a large incident.
During the Micha’s fire, the Tucson Fire Department had to respond to another minor call in South Tucson and an ambulance company responded to several emergency medical calls that night.
Interim Tucson Fire Chief Joe Gulotta said department personnel from nearby city firehouses were used to provide assistance in the Micha’s fire and that no additional resources from other parts of Tucson were needed.
Under the terms of the mutual aid agreement, South Tucson will not be billed for the response from Tucson Fire for the Micha’s fire.
However, he concedes, the South Tucson Fire Department no longer has resources to respond to emergency calls outside its city limits, making the mutual-aid agreement effectively one-sided.
Tucson Fire did respond to another call at roughly the same time as the Micha’s fire — a fire inside Red’s Smokehouse & Tap Room, just west of the University of Arizona campus. Responding within five minutes, Gulotta said the damage to Red’s was significantly less than at Micha’s.
The owners of Micha’s have told the Star they intend on rebuilding and reopening the restaurant.