NIST releases report on Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people

waldo canyon fireThe National Institute of Standards and Technology has released a lengthy report on the Waldo Canyon Fire that burned 344 homes and killed two people in Colorado Springs, Colorado in June, 2012. (It can be downloaded here, but is a large file.)

The 216-page document covers firefighting tactics, how structures ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but does not address to any significant extent the management, planning, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which were some of the largest issues.

The report was put together by five people, Alexander Maranghides, Derek McNamara, Robert Vihnanek, Joseph Restaino, and Carrie Leland.

At least three official reports have been written about the Waldo Canyon Fire, two from the city of Colorado Springs (here and here) and a third from the county sheriff’s office. However one of the most revealing was the result of an independent investigation by a newspaper, the Colorado Springs Independentwhich revealed facts that were left out of the government-issued documents, including numerous examples of mismanagement by the city before and during the event.

The fire was first reported the evening of June 22, 2012 on the Pike National Forest. Due at least in part to the anemic response from the U.S. Forest Service, the fire was not located until after noon the following day. No aircraft were requested until firefighters were at the fire, more than 16 hours after the initial report.

The day the fire started there were eight large fires burning in Colorado and 16 uncontained large fires in the country. Four days later on June 26 when the Waldo Canyon Fire moved into Colorado Springs burning 344 homes and killing two people, there were 29 uncontained large fires burning in the United States.

However there were only nine large air tankers in the United States on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts, down from the 44 we had 10 years before.

The 7-page Executive Summary of this newest report lists 4 primary findings, 37 technical findings, and 13 primary recommendations.

Primary findings:

  1. Defensive actions were effective in suppressing burning structures and containing the Waldo Canyon fire.
  2. Pre-fire planning is essential to enabling safe, effective, and rapid deployment of firefighting resources in WUI fires. Effective pre-fire planning requires a better understanding of exposure and vulnerabilities. This is necessary because of the very rapid development of WUI fires.
  3. Current concepts of defensible space do not account for hazards of burning primary structures, hazards presented by embers and the hazards outside of the home ignition zone.
  4. During and/or shortly after an incident, with limited damage assessment resources available, the collection of structure damage data will enable the identification of structure ignition vulnerabilities.

Three of the technical recommendations:

  • Fire departments should develop, plan, train and practice standard operating procedures for responding to WUI fires in their specific communities. These procedures should result from scientifically mapping a community’s high- and low-risk areas of exposure to both the fire and embers generated during WUI events (as will be possible using the WUI Hazard Scale).
  • A “response time threshold” for WUI fires should be established for each community. Fire departments have optimal “time-to-response” standards for reaching urban fires. Similar thresholds can, and should be, set for WUI fires.
  • High-density structure-to-structure spacing in a community should be identified and considered in WUI fire response plans. In the Waldo Canyon fire, the majority of homes destroyed were ignited by fire and embers coming from other nearby residences already on fire. Based on this observation, the researchers concluded that structure spatial arrangements in a community must be a major consideration when planning for WUI fires.

Primary recommendations:

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White House announces efforts to mitigate effects of climate change on wildfires in urban interface

On Monday the White House announced several initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change on fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Vice President Biden appeared briefly at a meeting in the Executive Office Building with 20 fire chiefs and emergency managers from the western United States.

“I can’t prove any one fire is a consequence of climate change. But you don’t have to be a climatologist, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that things have changed, they’ve changed rapidly,” the Vice President told the group. “The bottom line is your job is getting a hell of a lot more dangerous.”

At least 37 wildland fire chiefs and professional fire associations have signed on to a commitment, according to the White House, “to ensure that firefighters have the information, training and resources required to face the current and growing threats that climate impacts are having at the WUI, and to ensure community resilience by encouraging wildland fire prevention and mitigation practices by property owners, communities, and local governments across the country”.

The administration also announced the release of a study of the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 344 homes in Colorado Springs in 2012, titled, A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Waldo Fire – Event Timeline and Defensive Actions (it can be downloaded here, but is a large file). The report covers firefighting tactics, how structures were ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but oddly does not address to any significant extent the management, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which was one of the largest issues. (We looked at this report in more detail in another article on Wildfire Today.)

Still another wildland fire related initiative announced Monday was the release of a report commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council, titled Wildland Fire Science and Technology Task Force Final Report. The task force was comprised of 28 representatives of federal agencies with any interest or responsibility, however fleeting, for land management or wildland fire.

The group’s primary recommendation was that a standing Federal Fire Science Coordination Council be established to:

  • ensure regular exchange among the leaders of those Federal organizations that either produce or use fire science;
  • strengthen coordination and collaboration among the organizations that produce wildland-fire science and technology;
  • establish mechanisms to systematically assess user needs and priorities for science, research, and technology support; and
  • define national-level needs for Federal fire science in support of the fire-management community

Colorado’s Multi Mission aircraft enhance firefighter safety

Colorado MMA

One of the two Multi Mission Aircraft owned by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. CDFPC photo.

The two Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) recently purchased by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control could be significant progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of a wildfire and firefighters.

The Pilatus PC-12 single-engine aircraft have sensors on board combined with communications and software capabilities that can provide a version of the Holy Grail to office-bound fire managers as well as firefighters on the ground.

Operating well above firefighting air tankers and helicopters, the MMAs have two cameras, color and infrared. The color camera provides video similar to that used by news helicopters orbiting over a wildfire in California. The heat-detecting infrared sensor can map the location of large fires and can find small ones that can be difficult or impossible to spot from the air using just human eyesight. The cameras can be used to monitor the locations of firefighters on the ground, however their identities or resource designators would not be automatically provided.

The suite of communications and software, called Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS), transmits the data from the sensors in a usable form to a network where it can be accessed by authorized personnel in offices, fire apparatus, and firefighters on the ground with hand held devices.

Half of the Holy Grail appears to be provided with the MMAs — the real time or near-real time location of the fire. The other half, knowing the location of firefighters, can be determined to a certain extent, but only if the equipment operator devotes a significant amount of their time using the cameras to follow personnel and equipment on the ground. On a small fire this could be done while still maintaining the big picture of the spread of the fire, but on large incidents with hundreds or thousands of resources, it would be impossible. However, if a crew reported that they were in a dangerous situation (think Yarnell Hill Fire, where 19 firefighters died), perhaps the operator could use the infrared and visual sensors to locate them and relay that information to resources on the ground or in the air that could provide assistance.

The wildland firefighting agencies still need to adopt hardware and communications systems that can track every piece of apparatus, crew, and any resource operating alone on the fireline. That information could then be accessed on a display that could be monitored, at a minimum, by a Safety Officer, and others as needed; eventually by fire supervisors with hand held devices.

Some of the air attack aircraft under federal contract either have or will have video capabilities similar to that on Colorado’s MMAs, but a system needs to be utilized by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that can make it usable to firefighters on the ground. Colorado has provided a template proving it can be done.

The CO-WIMS being used now by Colorado to provide real time intelligence is a huge step forward. While the state is far from developing a comprehensive organization for responding to and managing wildland fires, they deserve kudos for what they have already implemented with the MMAs and CO-WIMS.

It’s kind of like a homeless person being given a pair of $500 shoes. It’s a nice addition to their wardrobe, but there is still more that needs to be done.

More information: A .pdf version of a DCFPC presentation about the MMA and CO-WIMS at the October 21-23, 2015 Colorado State Fire Chiefs Fire Leadership Conference.

The following videos demonstrate some of the intelligence gathering capabilities of the MMA:

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USFWS prescribed fire burns structures

USFWS prescribed fire escape

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prescribed fire on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, October 16, 2015. FWS photo by Eric Haberstick.

A wildfire resulting from an escaped prescribed fire on October 16 burned about 600 acres on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, 3 miles south of Walden, Colorado. Three structures were destroyed — a barn, pump house, and mobile home used as a storage building. Firefighters from several federal agencies and Jackson County Fire Department contained the fire at 6 p.m. October 17.

9NEWS reported that two heavy air tankers, a single-engine air tanker, and heavy helicopter all made retardant drops on the fire.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials are convening an interagency review team with expertise in wildfire suppression, prescribed fire planning, and data analysis to investigate the escape.

Firefighters ignited the prescribed fire Friday morning, planned at 370 acres, to remove decadent vegetation, reduce wildfire risk, and improve wildlife habitat. That afternoon, although conditions fit within the required burn parameters according to the FWS, the project escaped containment lines. Firefighters reported witnessing a firewhirl.

The video below was shot by Erik Haberstick for the FWS.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jared.

Colorado Fire Chiefs submit recommendations to legislature committee

On August 24 the Colorado State Fire Chiefs organization provided recommendations to Colorado’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee regarding how to improve the wildfire suppression capabilities within the state.

Below are brief excerpts from their 14 pages of testimony:


“…The three highest priority recommendations remain the same as made to the Committee on October 1, 2013 & August 4, 2014

#1 — Insure the stability and reliability of the current Colorado state-wide emergency radio system.

…There is still much to be done to assure seamless interoperability on a routine basis. Further, the progress that has been made is now in jeopardy. .

There are two major trunked digital systems in use throughout the State. The State Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS) and a Harris system used by Denver, Aurora, and some surrounding jurisdictions. Significant grant funds have been invested in tying these systems together for interoperability.

But, ongoing maintenance challenges with the DTRS has resulted in Weld and Adams counties (Front Range Communication Consortium) purchasing another radio switch, effectively creating yet another radio system that may not provide seamless interoperability with the two existing systems

The reason for the third split is a very real concern that the DTRS is not being maintained by the state and the anticipation that with this maintenance neglect the DTRS will predictably fail…

#2 — Continue to invest in the development, expansion & implementation of the State resource mobilization plan.

If we cannot effectively mobilize, deploy and utilize firefighting resources then the efforts of this committee and the fire services across this state are minimized and lives are placed at risk.

DHSEM received three FTEs as part of HB13-1031 for this purpose. Due to multiple circumstances and back-to-back disasters there has been a delay in filling these three positions. These positions must be filled expeditiously and certainly before the end of 2013…

#3 — Expand the current local, regional and State command, control, and coordination capabilities.

Third in priority, after communications and resource mobilization is a solid incident command system that is rapidly scalable from a single jurisdiction incident to a multi-agency/multi-jurisdiction event

An incident command structure is essential to quickly organizing and efficiently utilizing the firefighting assets that will be mobilized under the State resource mobilization plan.

Investment in the five (5) current All-Hazard Incident Management Teams provides the best all-around ROI for the expenditure of state funding. The AHIMTs are force multipliers for all the local and state resources being managed in any major incident.

The state currently recognizes five (5) Type III All-Hazard Incident Management Teams. These teams are considered a statewide asset, but are all volunteer organized, staffed and funded and they currently receive absolutely minimal support from the state…

#4 — Provide sufficient funding to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) to fulfill its stated missions.

Ensure that all regions of the State have their assigned Fire Management Officers (FMOs). The FMOs are a capability that, when coordinating with a local firefighting force, significantly

increases their firefighting potential and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment.

However, the FMOs in each region are only one person deep and all FMOs can easily be fully engaged without any backup and sustained 24/7 operations are not possible with the current FMO staffing levels, especially when multiple regions are experiencing multiple fires (which is now considered the normal status operations during wildfire season)

Previously some regions in the state had as many as three district foresters from the Colorado State Forest Service. Funding for the DFPC also provides that initial response from the State to assist local agencies with determining if the fire will be handled locally or what additional resources will be required…

#5 — State aviation resources are an essential and integral part of the initial attack on WUI fires.

Provide funding support for the appropriate mix of firefighting aircraft to fill the gap between what is needed on WUI and wildland fires in Colorado and what the federal interagency system will provide.

The Colorado Air National Guard (Title 32) using its helicopter air support capabilities and fully qualified and trained crews, should become an integral part of the air attack plans and operations for WUI fires in Colorado…”


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Short film, “Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change”

In February we showed you a trailer for a short film made by The Story Group that premiered later that month, titled Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change. Now the entire 12-minute film is available — above.

Here is the description of the film on Vimeo:

…The Story Group [based in Boulder, Colorado] recorded the experiences of firefighters who are repeatedly responding to record-breaking wildfires. Human-caused climate changes are transforming Colorado’s fire environment, bringing higher temperatures, drier fuels, and diseases to forests. These climate impacts mix with other human pressures to create a volatile situation for firefighters and communities. If current trends continue, we can expect more frequent, larger, and more devastating wildfires in Colorado and across the country.

It is really an excellent film. A great deal of information is packed into 12 minutes. What makes it special are the interviews with experienced firefighters who all testify to seeing fire behavior in the last decade or so that to their knowledge is unprecedented, at least in the front range of Colorado. The firefighters interviewed are all very well spoken and have something worthwhile to say.

They include Don Whittemore, an Incident Commander and a firefighter for 22 years; Chris O’Brien, Deputy Chief of the Lefthand Fire Protection District; Rod Moraga, Fire Behavior Analyst, firefighter for 28 years; and James Schanel, Battalion Chief, Colorado Springs Fire Department, firefighter for 30 years.

At the end they make a pitch about climate change, emphasizing how important it is to mitigate it NOW. And they are absolutely right. But there is a strong message for firefighters who are being forced to deal with a new normal. Mr. Whittemore said:

On a day to day basis we’re being surprised. And in this business, surprise is what kills people.

The visuals of wildfire are impressive — the videos, photographs, and time-lapse images.

The film can also be seen on Rocky Mountain PBS television. We can’t embed it here, but that version also includes interviews (beginning at 13:00) with Mr. Moraga and filmmaker Daniel Glick.

We received the following from Ted Wood of The Story Group, an Executive Producer and Camera Operator on the film:

The Story Group is funded entirely through grants and donations, and we’re trying to recoup some of our distribution costs by pointing people to our pay-per-download Vimeo site, where people who want to use the film for fire presentations, workshops, etc can pay $9.95 and download it. We’ve had a real interest from Colorado fire managers to use the film in training, and we’d like to offer it to a larger national audience.