Local Colorado newspaper investigates management of Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012, the day hundreds of homes burned in Colorado Springs. Credit: Keystoneridin

The Colorado Springs Independent conducted an exhaustive study into the management of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which in June, 2012 killed two people, destroyed 346 homes, and burned 18,247 acres — with some of those acres and most of the homes being within the city limits of Colorado Springs. The results of their investigation, published in a lengthy article on December 12, are extremely interesting. More about that later.

On October 23, the City of Colorado Springs released what they called an “Initial After Action Report”, but in the document they admitted the AAR was not the final, comprehensive report on the fire, but was considered preliminary. An in-depth analysis, they said, would occur over the next several months to fully explore Colorado Spring’s management of the fire.

The report, as we wrote then, was unusual. It listed some strengths and recommendations, but omitted information about the issues that caused the recommendations. Therefore, it was not always clear WHY the recommendations were made, forcing an observer to read between the lines. This limited the opportunities for lessons learned and may not in all cases have the desired result of preventing mistakes. There was no indication that they consulted experts outside the city for unbiased opinions or recommendations.

In reviewing the recommendations in the ARR, it appeared that many of the issues would be mitigated with adequate training and experience in the Incident Command System.

After reading the article in yesterday’s Colorado Springs Independent, I am left stunned. Regarding the management of the fire within the city of Colorado Springs, I have never heard of a wildland fire with such a huge impact that was so utterly, catastrophically mismanaged.

The fire started Saturday, June 23, 2012. A Type 1 Incident Management Team, Great Basin Team 2, with Incident Commander Rich Harvey, assumed command Monday morning, June 25. Except, according to the article:

[Colorado Springs FD Fire Chief Rich] Brown said he specified in the city’s delegation of authority that the city, and no one else, would have control if the fire crossed into Colorado Springs.

The newspaper examined hundreds of documents including reports written by firefighters working on the fire. The article is astounding. If it is correct, and I have no reason to believe it is not, it exposes complete failures in pre-incident planning, qualification and training of fire department personnel, evacuation planning and execution, logistics, daily incident planning, strategy, and tactics. Apparently this large, modern city with an extensive, very vulnerable wildland-urban interface was completely unprepared to manage a large wildland fire or evacuations.

The article does not criticize firefighters. It points out the failures in preparedness and management of the fire by upper level officials, before, during, and after the incident. Some mid-level and upper level firefighters were forced into positions of great responsibility on the fire without having been provided the necessary training and experience. That was not their fault, it was just the way it was done in Colorado Springs.

You should read the article. It’s long, but worth it from a lessons learned perspective. The comments at the bottom of the article are interesting as well.

Here are a few excerpts from the article, copied and assembled into bullets:

  • When the fire swept into Mountain Shadows, the city had a mere four firefighting vehicles, or apparatus, assigned to that subdivision and all other land north to the Air Force Academy.
  • The evacuation plan had been drafted only that morning, and was enacted minutes before the first homes burned.
  • Local firefighters found themselves outgunned, and much of the help from other fire departments was nowhere close, because leaders sought those resources only after flames came into the city. Their chief staging area wasn’t set up and equipped until houses were ablaze, and they didn’t have a mobile command post until eight hours into Tuesday’s firefight [when most of the homes burned].
  • And, as readily admitted by city firefighters leading efforts on the ground that night, the fire could have charged further eastward for miles had it not been for the unanticipated arrival of U.S. Forest Service engines and their hot shot crews.
  • [A Colorado Springs FD Captain], a heavy rescue expert with no current wildland certification, was in charge of the city’s deployed resources on Tuesday [when most of the homes burned].
  • And because the department hadn’t made maps in advance for out-of-town engines, crew’s like Company Officer P.J. Langmaid’s were told to “split all our companies and place one member on each Denver Fire rig as a point of contact and communications/operations liaison.”
  • The next day, the city did sign its own delegation of authority — but apparently made it clear its fire personnel would remain separate from Harvey’s [Type 1 Incident Management] team, which arrived Sunday night. In a July 16 interview, [Colorado Springs FD Fire Chief Rich] Brown said he specified in the city’s delegation of authority that the city, and no one else, would have control if the fire crossed into Colorado Springs.
  • As adamant as the city was that its personnel operate independently during the fire, it looks equally adamant now that its personnel alone examine the response. No third party has been engaged to review the city’s performance, which often is requested when a fire kills people.

The map below shows the progression of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Colorado Springs is on the eastern edge below the blue box that says “July 1-6″.
Waldo Canyon Fire progression map

The Colorado Springs Independent, and the reporter, Pam Zubeck, deserve a great deal of praise for their investigation and the writing of this excellent article. Pulitzer Prize-worthy maybe?

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

9 thoughts on “Local Colorado newspaper investigates management of Waldo Canyon Fire

  1. I very much appreciated your summary as well as the full article. The crying need for the CSFD to be tied into the fire suppression organization is clear. That the CSFD was not versed in ICS is clear from their actions during the crisis. I sincerely hope they rectify this before the next large fire.

  2. I read the whole article last night and decided to sleep on it… it didnt get any better. This looks like a city that doesnt want any outside help/influence when it’s critical to accept help and then once they are overwhelmed beg for the help.
    The other interesting point is that i would bet al my OT next summer that they are accepting federal $ (either FEMA prepardness, RFA/VFA, AFG or a conbination of all of the above) and sign the dotted line that they are 100% NIMS complient (required). FEMA should do an audit and testing and if they are found to have lied on the matter then held up as an example of why NIMS complience is required.

    Kudo’s to the team to sending in resources once they saw that the local resources (adamant that they are the only force allowed according to the Delegation of Authority) were overwhelmed. What is not answered here (although its obvious not) is whether there was an AREP from the city at the ICP for planning meetings and shift briefings.

    This is just skimming the surface of the issues here…

  3. Since it does not appear that there will be a full AAR on this fire, my concern is that there does not seem to be any formal process to enable other fire protection districts and county sheriffs in Colorado to capture Waldo Canyon “lessons learned” and improve the situation in their respective districts.

    Colorado is not organized for concerted suppression action. A 1903 state law makes each individual county sheriff responsible for suppression of wildfires in their county, except when the fire is within a incorporated city boundary, or on State or Federal property. State responsibility for suppression efforts was moved this year under the Department of Public Safety. Some of our fire protection districts are all volunteer, most are a mix of professional full time people and volunteers. Given this fragmented leadership chain, fixing many of the Waldo Canyon problems may not happen.

  4. I am looking forward to reading the full report, but the summary read like the after action report for the 1970 Devil Winds conflagration in Southern California that reulted, after some hard pushing by fire leaders, in the FIRESCOPE program that produced, among other things, the NIMS system. 42 years later it seems as if we are still re-learning lessons larned.

  5. NIIMS ir NIMS

    Yes some folks still don’t take this seriously enough EVEN in the last 10 years of FEMA / DHS sponsored grants, that amongst other things, required folks to gather a PET (planning, exercise, and training) program to exercise a number of events ranging from terrorism, WMD, nuke and even wildland fire.

    Various grant programs were all about training through seminar, tabletop, drill, functional, and full scale exercises. Even without the grants did the city reach out to CSU and its former Fire program? DID CSU reach out to the EM community to do these type of requirements? Did the USFS reach out to the community before this event? Did the city reach out to the USFS before this event? REAL simple questions….. you know life in the world of Local Emergency Operations Plans, where the who and what are the responsibilities and NOT the how to do it. That IS the Local function and how it is going to handle their emergencies

    IF so, was there was there an AAR done to HSEEP standards and reporting?

    IF the answer is yes to both the LMA world and Public Administration world including the EM’s, then yes, I too, do believe the learning curve has just re steeepened itself for more requirements and training.

    Bet your life, there WILL be more requirements for these types of issues in the future…….

    • leo,

      The problem in Colorado is that everything is “local”. The “federal folks” can offer all the help they want but unless the county sheriffs get together and decide to take the feds up on their offer, nothing happens. The State has minimal influence on a statewide coordinated fire mitigation and suppression process because the sheriffs are elected law enforcement oriented people responsible to their individual counties. The Colorado legislature hasn’t figured out that the 1903 law needs to be revised and that the state needs to take control of wild fire mitigation and suppression programs and responsibilities.

  6. I can’t speak to CSFD in particular, but it has been my observation that fire departments in general range from a few that are pretty pathetic to most that are really good at applying ICS in those situations they encounter with any frequency. They can do ICS on a multi-alarm commercial fire just fine, they do it daily on single and 3-5 unit responses. This can easily lead to the belief that “we understand ICS – we do it every day”. The problem occurs when folks who do NOT routinely get involved in Type 1 and 2 level incidents all the sudden find themselves in the midst of one, and they are not accustomed to making that transition to IMT’s, outside folks running things, having the level of staging, resource management, logistical support, and the like. That’s part of why we have IMT’s in the first place; most of us rarely or never “own” this level of incident, so it only makes sense to have a handful of expert teams who can handle the few dozen incidents of this level nationwide in a “typical” year. That they failed to avail themselves of that available expertise may be the bigger failure than their inability to run such an incident themselves. Few FD’s in the country could, but hopefully most of us would know enough to bring in the experts and let them take it.

  7. I wish I had a nickle for every time I heard somebody ona municipal fire department say, “we know ICS, we use it everyday.”

    Medical calls and room and contents fires dont count.

  8. I was a this fire,,, denver fire never got the mutal aid call for help tell after 7pm,,, also one the first Colo. Springs fire chiefs on the scene requested 50 task forces to come to there aid and was refused by springs command.

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