CHP Gave Safety Clearance to Water Truck Involved in Firefighter’s Fatal Crash

Workers clean up a hazmat spill in front of a destroyed home as the Nuns Fire continues to burn on Oct. 10, 2017, in Glen Ellen, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 at 2 p.m. 

California Highway Patrol records show that a water tanker involved in a fatal crash during the North Bay fires earlier this month was briefly taken off the road last year because of maintenance concerns.

Garrett Paiz was driving a 24-year-old Kenworth water tanker down a steep grade Oct. 16 when the truck overturned. Paiz, a Southern California native who lived in Noel, Missouri, died in the crash on Oakville Grade, just east of Highway 29 and northwest of Yountville.

CHP documents show that a June 2016 safety inspection of the vehicle at an agency facility in Shasta County found five violations. One of the violations was considered serious enough that the Highway Patrol ordered the vehicle out of service until the problem was corrected.

That violation involved excessive wear on a universal joint, or U-joint, on the vehicle’s rear driveshaft. A U-joint is a coupling that allows a vehicle’s axle to move up and down while maintaining connection with the driveshaft.

The inspection also found a front U-joint with less wear — not serious enough to remove the truck from service. Other violations involved a brake that was found to be out of adjustment, oil or grease leaking from the hub of an inner wheel, and worn front mainsprings.

The CHP did not issue any citations in connection with the violations. Five days later, the Highway Patrol records show, the problems had been corrected and the truck’s owner, Tehama Transport of Red Bluff, was allowed to put the truck back into service. The June 2016 inspection appears to have been the last formal examination the vehicle received.

‘Everything Looked to Be in Compliance’

“Everything looked to be in compliance on that vehicle,” said Officer Hector Baiza with the CHP Golden Gate Division’s commercial operations unit in an interview.

Baiza and experts who have reviewed the vehicle’s inspection records say the kind of violations noted on the water truck are normal, and that the reports do not raise concerns about the safety of the vehicle.

The Highway Patrol inspected the water truck five times in the last nine years. Aside from the June 6, 2016, inspection that found several violations, the only other violation flagged on the vehicle was during an inspection in March 2010.

Tehama Transport is one of scores of companies that supply water tenders and bulldozers under contract to help Cal Fire battle wildfires.

Days after the crash, state workplace regulators launched an investigation into the company after learning that it was not providing its employees with workers’ compensation insurance.

Cal Fire has hired the company 56 times in the last four years, records show. Nine of those assignments were for work associated with the blazes during the October Fire Siege, the extreme wildfire behavior that has devastated the North Bay and other parts of the state.

Between 2008 and this month, the CHP cited Tehama Transport vehicles a total of 14 times for a variety of infractions and equipment issues, including overweight vehicles, brake and light problems, and out-of date registrations. In 2015 the CHP gave the company a “satisfactory” rating.

Tehama Transport could not be reached for comment on the vehicle safety records or past CHP citations.

Crash Factors Under Examination

The CHP, and not Cal Fire, is investigating the fatal crash. Investigators are trying to determine if speed or fatigue contributed to the incident, according to Baiza.

The CHP measured skid marks on the road to determine how fast the truck was going, and it’s trying to find out how many hours Paiz had been working before the crash.

Investigators are also looking into whether smoke during the wildfire impaired Paiz’s vision. The crash took place in the hour before sunrise, so it was dark at the time.

Cal Fire requires its private contractors who operate heavy equipment like water tenders and bulldozers to undergo safety training.

Paiz took volunteer firefighter training courses administered by Cal Fire and the Riverside County Fire Department in 2000 and 2001, but that did not include sessions focused on operating heavy equipment.

Cal Fire has reached out to fire officials in Missouri to determine if Paiz had sufficient training to operate a water tender.

Brandon Barrett, the chief of the Noel Fire Department, where Paiz was employed in the last year, said Paiz received heavy equipment training at his agency. Paiz also reportedly co-owned a company called Native Express Trucking.

Around 25 percent of all firefighter fatalities occur during traffic crashes, according to the U.S. Forest Administration. The agency says it’s the second-leading cause of firefighter deaths, next to cardiovascular ailments.

A USFA report that reviewed 38 fatal water-tanker crashes between 1990 and 2001 noted that all of those who died were “volunteer” firefighters, many of whom were found not to be wearing seat belts.

The CHP has not said whether Paiz was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. However, agency investigators do not believe Paiz would have survived the crash even if had been wearing a seat belt, according to CHP Sgt. Ed Clarke.

The vehicle rolled over and eventually landed on the roof of the cab, Clarke said.  The cab was crushed and Paiz was not ejected from the truck, Clarke said Tuesday.

Meantime, Paiz’s friends and family are mourning his death.

Paiz was laid to rest last Friday. During a funeral ceremony at Destiny’s Church in Indio, the Riverside County town where he was born, he was remembered as a man who gave his life to service and was loved by many.

Scores of firefighters, including some from Noel, Missouri, where Paiz worked as a volunteer, attended the ceremony. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-La Quinta, who grew up with the Paiz family, was one of the local leaders in attendance.

“Garrett … never woke up in the morning to go to work for himself. He always went to work for somebody else,” the Rev. Obed Martinez, the pastor of Destiny’s Church, said during the service.

CHP Gave Safety Clearance to Water Truck Involved in Firefighter’s Fatal Crash 2 November,2017Ted Goldberg

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city’s fire department and the Bay Area’s refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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