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

Waldo Canyon Fire, two years later

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012
Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012., Photo by Keystoneridin.

It was two years ago today, on June 23, 2012, that the Waldo Canyon Fire started in the Pike National Forest southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado. On June 26 it spread into the Mountain Shadows area of the city. Before the fire was out, it had killed two people and burned 18,000 acres and 347 homes.

The Colorado Springs Gazette has an interesting article written by Ryan Maye Handy about the impacts of the fire, the rebuilding efforts, and how it affected the residents. It is very well written and worth your time. There is also a video with the article that covers the devastating floods that came weeks and months after the fire. But the website may make you answer two or more stupid questions before it will let you see it.

Below is a brief excerpt from the article:

…Nevertheless in Colorado and around the country, Mountain Shadows is considered a fire recovery success story. Partially due to its urban setting, a greater percentage of homes – 77 percent – have been rebuilt than in any other fire-ravaged community in the state, including neighborhoods in Boulder and Larimer counties and Black Forest. Nearly all the homes in Mountain Shadows were primary residences, whereas in some Colorado fires a significant percentage of houses lost were vacation homes.

Brett Lacey, the Colorado Springs fire marshal who engineered the new fire codes for the hillside neighborhood, has traveled around North America to talk about Mountain Shadows. The neighborhood’s fire mitigation work has become a model for cities in Montana and Canada.

But Mountain Shadows’ fast recovery also echoes a disturbing trend in the West: Catastrophic wildfires wipe the slate clean, making room for bigger, more expensive dream houses in zones that remain at risk for wildfires.

There was much criticism about how the Waldo Canyon Fire was managed in the city of Colorado Springs. At least three official reports were written, two from the city (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 Independent which revealed facts that were left out of the government-issued documents. After reading the three official reports and then the Independent’s article, I wrote on December 13, 2012:

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.

Waldo Canyon Fire survivors help survivors of Black Forest Fire

A tweet from KKTV in Colorado Springs:


That is the first time I have heard of this happening — survivors from a massive, very destructive wildfire less than a year before hold a picnic for survivors of another even more destructive wildfire that occurred just a few miles away.

The Black Forest Fire just north of Colorado Springs has destroyed approximately 480 structures. The Waldo Canyon Fire less than a year earlier wiped out 347 homes in Colorado Springs.

This is a great thing that the Waldo Canyon survivors are doing.

Our most current information about the Black Forest Fire is HERE.

Dispatcher may have mishandled 911 call about Waldo Canyon Fire

If a 911 dispatcher had handled an incoming call differently, it is possible that the disastrous Waldo Canyon Fire could have been suppressed long before it killed two people and burned 18,000 acres and 347 homes in Colorado Springs.

On April 19 we covered the time line on the fire, including the fact that it took firefighters 16 hours to find it after the first smoke report at 7:50 p.m. on June 22, 2012. Between 7:30 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. the next day another 911 caller reported the fire and indicated that he had been running on a trail and apparently had been close to the fire and knew the actual location. But the dispatcher said the Forest Service was responding, and thank you. Four hours later at noon firefighters finally found the fire 16 hours after the first report.

KKTV transcribed the 911 call from the runner:

Dispatcher: “On Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 7:50 a.m.”

Dispatcher: “This is the El Paso County Dispatch.”

Caller: “I’m calling on the suspected Waldo fire; I was running the trail today and went up on one of the dog legs after I smelled a little bit of smoke. There’s a spot about a couple hundred feet wide that’s still smoldering a little bit.”

Dispatcher: “Right….Pueblo Forest Service checked on that last night they said that they would be sending up another unit first thing this morning to check on it, but they are aware of it and they will be up there shortly this morning. Okay?”

Caller: “Yeah. I just wanted to make sure.”

Dispatcher: “Sure. Thank you.”

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office report about the fire mentioned the runner’s call:

…[The caller] was advised that responding agencies were aware of the report. The reporting party’s contact information or specific location was not captured or reported to responding agencies as the dispatcher believed responding agencies were aware of the location of the fire.

Later in the Sheriff’s report, the call was referred to again:

…Pinpointing more specific location would potentially expedite response. Obtaining specific information from witnesses as to their location with respect to the sighting of smoke/fire and responding to reporting parties’ locations as they were reporting signs of the fire would more narrowly identify the location of the fire.

There is no indication in the reports that the U.S. Forest Service requested a helicopter or any other aerial resources to assist in locating the smoke, which was in the Pike National Forest just west of Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief to retire

President Obama at Waldo Canyon Fire
President Barack Obama views fire damage with firefighters and elected officials at the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colo., June 29, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; click to enlarge)

Rich Brown, the Chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, has announced his retirement. Even though he has been criticized for the way the fire department handled the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire that killed two residents and burned 347 homes, some employees within the city’s administration have said that Chief Brown is simply done, and ready for retirement after serving for 32 years. He became Chief in December, 2011, and his retirement is effective April 30, but he will remain on the city’s payroll as a consultant for six months at his annual salary of $147,657 plus benefits, according to an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

A person could wonder if Chief Brown’s job has been a lot less fun since the details about how his department responded to the Waldo Canyon fire have become public.

An excellent article in the Colorado Springs Independent last December was written after an examination of hundreds of documents including reports written by firefighters working on the fire. If the article 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 and 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.