Angostura Reservoir this evening. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (click on the image to see a larger version)
Today the Black Forest Fire District Board released a report on how the Black Forest Fire was managed on the first day. Starting on the northeast side of Colorado Springs, the fire killed two people, destroyed 486 homes, and damaged 37 others in June of 2013.
The local county Sheriff, Terry Maketa, has been extremely critical of Fire Chief Bob Harvey,who was responsible for the initial attack. Sheriff Maketa has given several blistering interviews to the media criticizing Chief Harvey’s actions that day. His main point was that he thinks the Chief should have turned over the fire to him or the county much earlier.
The documents released today, a statement from the Board and a summary of the report, show strong support for Chief Harvey and generally appear to disprove some of the charges leveled by Sheriff Maketa.
One of the Sheriff’s main contentions was that the Chief waited many hours before turning over the management of the fire to the County or the Sheriff, which the Sheriff said occurred at 8:23 p.m..
The report concluded that the fire was reported at 1:42 p.m. on June 11. The first engine arrived about six minutes later. At 2:14 p.m. a strong wind of 25 to 35 mph developed, increasing the rate of spread and pushing the fire into the crowns of the trees. Firefighters were then forced into defensive positions for their own safety. Between 3:45 and 3:55 p.m. Chief Harvey verbally turned over command of the fire to County Deputy Fire Marshall Scott Campbell, a Type 3 Incident Commander. At 4:08 p.m. Mr. Campbell signed a document confirming the transfer of command. Other signatures on a Delegation of Authority document were obtained over the next several hours, with the last occurring at 8:23 p.m.
The Board commissioned retired Greenwood Village Police commander Dave Fisher to direct the inquiry. Mr. Fisher retired in October after a 29-year career at the suburban Denver department. He was assisted by Dave Daley, an operations executive officer at South Metro Fire Rescue in Centennial.
The statement of the Board criticized the attacks by the Sheriff and the media:
…This misadventure started because one elected official saw fit, for whatever personal or political reason, to make unsubstantiated allegations about our Chief’s performance following the onset of the Black Forest fire. We say unsubstantiated because the investigation has proven the facts, and what’s been established is very, very far from what was alleged. We have no way of knowing the motive in making these allegations and we are certain we will never know.
We also must acknowledge how disappointed we are in the conduct of some Colorado Springs media outlets in simply running with the allegations, and broadcasting the untruths, without a speck of legitimate journalistic enterprise to establish their validity. The media accepted the allegations at face value, further damaging this department’s reputation, and continued to repeat the damaging suppositions – again, leading us to hire our own investigator to get at the heart of the matter.
Colorado is one of a few states that have the policy of assigning the suppression of wildfires in unincorporated areas to the county employee with law enforcement responsibilities in those areas — the County Sheriff — rather than a person with expertise in fire suppression.
The U.S. Forest Service announced yesterday:
NRCS and Forest Service Partner to Improve Forest Health
HELENA, Mont., February 6, 2014 – Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie announced today a multi-year partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve the health and resiliency of forest ecosystems where public and private lands meet across the nation. The Under Secretary made the announcement in Helena, Mont., near the site of the Red Mountain Flume/Chessman Reservoir, one of the first areas to be addressed through the partnership. Another area to be targeted is the San Bernardino/Riverside County area of California which experienced catastrophic wildfires a decade ago.
“NRCS and the Forest Service have the same goal in this partnership – working across traditional boundaries and restoring the health of our forests and watersheds whether they’re on public or private lands,” Bonnie said.
Today’s announcement is part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan to responsibly cut carbon pollution, slow the effects of climate change and put America on track to a cleaner environment.
The project, called the Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership, will invest $30 million in 13 projects across the country this year to help mitigate wildfire threats to communities and landowners, protect water quality, and supply and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species.
The 13 priority projects will build on existing projects with local partnerships already in place. By leveraging technical and financial resources and coordinating activities on adjacent public and private lands, conservation work by NRCS and the Forest Service will be more efficient and effective in these watersheds.
“Wildfires and water concerns don’t stop at boundaries between public and private lands,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “By working together, we can provide more focused and effective assistance to help public and private landowners and managers put conservation solutions on the ground nationwide.”
“The Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership is an opportunity for our agencies to pool resources and get better results for the American people,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell added. “Restoring the health of our nation’s forests and grasslands is a critical effort, and it’s going to take partnerships like this to see the job through.”
The 13 projects:
Montana – Red Mountain Flume/Chessman Reservoir: $865,000 for restoration of the watershed is critical to protecting communities, watershed health and drinking water, contributing 80 percent of the water supply for Helena, Mont. Successful implementation of this project will protect public health and safety, reduce the risk of decades of erosion and flooding that could result from a wildfire, and potentially save millions of dollars in mitigation costs.
California – San Bernardino and Riverside County Fuels Reduction Project: In October 2003, Southern California experienced catastrophic wildfires that burned over 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,500 homes, and resulted in 22 fatalities and over $3 billion in losses. Since then, multiple partners have committed time and resources to planning and implementing forest health and wildfire hazard reduction projects on private land and working with the owners within San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Reducing forest fuels on 30,000 acres will provide additional protection for community safety, wildlife habitat, watershed health, recreation opportunities and cultural resources.
California – Mid-Klamath River Communities Project: The partnership has yielded numerous implementation-ready projects and treatments on some high priority federal and private lands are underway or complete. These treatments include fuel breaks, thinning, broadcast burning, and improved fire suppression infrastructure such as water tanks and ingress/egress routes. Although these projects are focused on communities, most of these projects have identified wildlife, water, and economic stability benefits.
- Minnesota – Upper Mississippi Headwaters Restoration
- New Mexico – Isleta Project
- New Hampshire – New Hampshire Drinking Water Improvement
- Wisconsin – Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership
- West Virginia – West Virginia Restoration Venture
- Kentucky – Triplett Creek
- Arkansas – Western Arkansas Woodland Restoration
- New York – Susquehanna Watershed Riparian Buffer Enhancements
- Mississippi – Upper Black Creek Watershed
- Oregon – East Face of the Elk Horn Mountains
The agencies are reviewing additional sites for the partnership to collaborate in the future and will continue to capitalize on NRCS and Forest Service overlying priorities and programs.
After the 14 wildland firefighters were killed on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado in 1994 the Wildland Firefighter Foundation commissioned a stature to be built in their honor. For years it sat outside the airport in Boise, but last year just before the memorial service for the 19 firefighters that were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire the statue appeared in Prescott at the entrance to the arena where the service was being held. The Prescott Daily Courier published an editorial today about its travels since that day on June 30, 2013.
Here is how the article begins:
The world showed its heart to the Prescott community this past June 30, when 19 of our Granite Mountain Hotshots perished in the Yarnell Hill fire they were struggling to contain.
One of the grandest memorials arrived in Prescott within a few days of the tragedy: a statue that had greeted and bid farewell to wildland firefighters passing through the Boise, Idaho, airport, either to help fight a fire or board a plane to fly home.
This extraordinary gesture of sympathy, the Spirit of the Wildland Community statue, honoring all firefighters – past, present and future – arrived in Prescott quietly, without a lot of fanfare.
The statue – all 1,300 pounds of it – was flown from Boise in Ross Perot’s personal Boeing 737, and when the plane landed in Phoenix in hot July summer heat, Jackson Hotshots unloaded the statue by hand and helped get it to Prescott Valley, where it first stood for the memorial services for the Hotshots on July 9 at Tim’s Toyota Center, a very fitting greeting for people who attended the public farewell to the firefighters…
The County Commissioners of Lewis and Clark County in Montana recently approved a resolution making it clear that county-level firefighters are not under an obligation to protect a home from a wildfire in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Below is an excerpt from an article in the Missoulian:
“…A lot of crews think they have to protect homes, and we’re trying to make it clear they’re just sticks and bricks,” said Sonny Stiger, who helped write the resolution. “This lets our firefighters know they’re not obligated to put their lives on the line to save homes.”
Stiger, a retired fire and fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service and a board member with FireSafe Montana, said building defensible space around homes in the urban interface is the sole responsibility of property owners who choose to live there.
Stiger said the new resolution makes it clear that homeowners should not expect firefighters to put their lives at risk to defend property.
“We can save a lot of homes going back in after the fire front passes, or in the case of the Yarnell Hill fire, not going in at all,” Stiger said, referring to the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters in June. “It’s time we stepped up at the county level to deal with this, and to let (firefighters) know they’re not obligated to protect homes…”
The resolution says in part:
Homes in the Wildland/Urban Interface will not dictate fire suppression tactics, strategies, or the location of fire lines.
The article claims this is a “first-of-its-kind resolution”, which may be the case. There is no doubt that some homeowners who moved into the WUI and refuse to cut or thin the trees and brush growing within 100 feet of their houses will be furious at this concept. Some of them take no responsibility as a property owner to make their homes fire-safe, but expect firefighters, many of them volunteers, to risk their lives to save their structures.
Placing the primary responsibility to protect a home from wildfire on the property owner, where it belongs, is very appropriate. County, city, and state regulations recognizing this do not exist in many areas..
On the Yarnell Hill Fire there was at least one person in a supervisory role who asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots to move from their safe, previously burned area, over to the the town of Yarnell in order to protect the structures, many of which were described later as not defendable due to brush and trees very close to the buildings. Some of the homeowners had done little or nothing to make their homes fire-safe. As the crew hiked through unburned brush toward the town, they were overrun by the fire and killed.
In the structural firefighting world you will sometimes hear opinions about risk-taking while fighting fire, including:
- Risk a lot to save a lot.
- Risk a little to save a little.
- Risk nothing to save nothing.
“Risk a lot” usually refers to rescuing occupants or preventing their death. “Save nothing” may apply to an abandoned building.
In wildland fire, vegetation could be in the “nothing” category. Sure, wildland fuels may have ecological, watershed, aesthetic value, or monetary value in the case of timber or pasture, but most vegetation has adapted or evolved to burn on a regular basis and will usually grow back. Houses grow back too, but firefighters don’t. Firefighters should never risk much to save acres OR houses.