Another report released for Colorado Springs’ Waldo Canyon Fire

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

(Originally published at 2:07 p.m. MT, April 5, 2013; updated at 4:30 p.m. MT, April 5, 2013)

The City of Colorado Springs has released a second report about the disastrous Waldo Canyon fire that in June, 2012 killed two people, destroyed 347 homes, and burned 18,247 acres. The first report can be found HERE, and was called an “Initial After Action Report” considered preliminary. Wildfire Today covered that report on October 23, 2012. This new report on the City’s web site is described as the “Final After Action Report”. Unlike the first version, this one provides more information about what went well and what didn’t, and includes many recommendations along with the reasons for each one.

As a firefighter who worked on the 1975 Pacoima Fire where the Incident Command System was used for the first time, it is difficult to understand why 37 years later a large city with an extensive wildland/urban interface in a wildfire-prone area had not fully adopted the ICS by 2012. In reviewing these two reports, and an excellent exposé written for the Colorado Independent by Pam Zubeck, which in my mind deserves a Pulitzer Prize, roughly 75 percent of the problems identified could have been avoided if Colorado Springs had fully implemented the ICS.

The City’s reports claim ICS training has been conducted for some of their employees, but it is clear from the problems encountered during the Waldo Canyon Fire that it was poorly, if at all, implemented.

Even if extensive ICS training is given within the City, that is not enough. The system needs to be used daily. No one can receive the training and then instantly be qualified as a Logistics Section Chief, for example. Under the best of circumstances, it takes years, sometimes decades of experience and training to advance from an entry level ICS position to the highest ranks, so Colorado Springs needs to develop an aggressive mentoring program. Trainees need to be assigned on large incidents outside the City to shadow someone who can show them the ropes. Their freshly trained employees may not qualify for a Trainee position at the Unit Leader or Section Chief level, but I doubt if the City will worry much about qualifications for ICS positions, or how to move up the chain of command from position to position. The 310-1 Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide might only be a pipe dream for Colorado Springs.

This in no way should be considered as criticism of the Colorado Springs firefighters. Many of them are highly trained and some have had multiple assignments with Type 1 incident management teams on large wildfires. The organizational and policy problems rest with the city administrators and the leaders within the fire department.

The Colorado Springs Gazette published an article about the report on April 3, pulling no punches. Here is an excerpt:

“Obviously, going forward we need to learn from this. If this fire had started on Cheyenne Mountain we would have lost thousands of homes and probably many more people,” [Mayor Steve Bach] said Wednesday. “This is going to happen again.”

The report focused largely on the afternoon and night of June 26, when the fire destroyed 347 homes and killed two residents.

Colorado Springs firefighters raced into Mountain Shadows without plans to ensure they had food, water or rest breaks, the report said.

Capt. Steve Riker, the department’s incident commander on June 26, said he initially had his firefighters “well under control.” However, he said that control began to slip as units from neighboring fire departments rushed to help.

Supervisors operated under organizational charts that weren’t fully developed, the report said, and emergency plans were “underutilized.”

Communication lagged between city officials and first responders in the field — leading firefighters and police officers to work without full situational awareness.

The Colorado Springs city administration has been sensitive to criticism about they way they managed the fire. In a video that was shot at a press conference, Chief Rich Brown said:

The hypercritical view by some at times just gets a little old. Because of the fact that they weren’t there. They didn’t see what the decision maker at the time saw. Any public safety professional worth anything is always going to come back and say I would have done this differently if I had the same thing to do over again.


Thanks go out to Dick

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “Another report released for Colorado Springs’ Waldo Canyon Fire”

  1. Region 2 has never had nor ever will have an agressive initial attack. Fire is not an emergency in R2 and that is what is stated time and time again within the region. Wildfires have changed in the region, but the region has not and will not adapt. IA usually consists of 1 to 2 engines and no aircraft until there are boots on the ground. Pilots know how to drop retardant a whole lot better than Type 6 engine captains.

  2. As long as the findings of an AAR can be used in court, don’t expect them to be useful truthful documents as far as finding out what went wrong and how to fix it. The military learned this over 30 years ago and instituted an independent effective safety investigation process that focuses on finding out what happened and why.

    Determining guilt should not be part of an investigative process whose purpose is to increase safety and prevent future mishaps. The State attorney general is responsible for investigations determining culpability and responsibility.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that Colorado Springs is much different than many, perhaps most, front range communities in Colorado with respect to organization and training for large scale fires. Colorado is not organized for success … 64 different county sheriffs [not professional fire fighters] are responsible for firefighting in their respective counties. Incorporated cities and towns are independent of the county sheriff. The State has minimal capability and usually defaults to a federal IMT as soon as things get out of hand. Colorado has had firefighting “on the cheap” for decades and it shows.

  3. The AFTER ACTION REPORT by CSFD/Colorado Springs for Waldo Canyon Fire is MISSING AND MIS-STATING some VERY important facts and information!
    = No Copy of the June 23,2013 “Special Contract” the City Attorney Chris Melcher “whipped up” on Saturday
    June 23,2012 for Mayor Bach and CSFD Leadership was included in the published AAR or made available in any report form the City or CSFD.
    On Saturday June 23 the initial ICS structure made the decision to delegate the authority of this fire to a FEDERAL TYPE 1 MIT (TYPE 1 is highest level of fire danger ,due to aggressive, fast moving fires) with an Experienced Federally Certified Type 1 Wild Fire Incident Commander. Every other City signed the STANDARD contract of cooperation and funding between Cities and State and USFS.
    During the Waldo Canyon Fire, CSFD Leadership and Mayor Bach “had to have” a “special contract” for Colorado Springs that “had to be signed” by USFS and EL Paso County before Mayor Steve Bach and CSFD (Fire Chief Rich Brown and Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dubay) before the city would allow CSFD participation with any fire assistance “not within city limits” and that required “any emergency services assisting within city limits”and
    evacuation decisions be under Colorado Springs CSFD and Mayor Bach supervision and control, none of whom were State or Federally certified as Wildfire Incident Commanders! Mayor Back and CSFD Leadership were 100% in charge of the placement of firefighting equipment and personnel in any fire zone within city limits!
    =(NO information on HOW MANY Engines, Brush Trucks, and CSFD personnel were in each Zone from Saturday JUNE 23 thru Tuesday 4:00 pm JUNE 26! Although the report did list numbers of CSPD sent to each area …and The report was signed by BRET WATERS , OEM of Colorado Springs .
    For Cedar Heights (183 single family homes , average home value 546,000) CSFD Fire Chief Rich Brown and Deputy Steve Dubay had 14 fire apparatus on the first day (Saturday), then 23 fire apparatus the 2nd day (Sunday) ,with fire crews assigned to “prep and mitigate the properties”, in case the fire did get into that evacuated Cedar Heights subdivision. On Tuesday, June 26, 2013 when the Pyrocumulus “event” inevitably rolled over the hillside into the Mountain Shadows area , CSFD (Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dubay and Fire Chief Rich Brown) had only 4 CSFD engines assigned for 1,413 homes in Mountain Shadows subdivision (average value 340,000) and the area north, up to the Air Force Academy!
    =The inconsistent evacuation decisions from Mayor Bach, (per the mayor) “based on advice from CSFD Leadership” (Fire Chief Rich Brown, Deputy Chief Steve Dubay ,Fire Marshal Brett Lacey , and OEM Bret Waters)”, and Mayor Bach’s eventual “mandatory evacuation” decision that was given after it was too late for the elderly couple who burned alive in their home, were based on CSFD Deputy Fire Chief Steve Debay , Fire Chief Rich Brown and Mayor Bach choosing to ignore the CSFD EOC and FDOC Mandatory Evacuation “triggers” for Zone 3 MAP (northern Mountain Shadows) established as “any breeching of Zone 2(southern
    Mountain Shadows), or any fire activity observed on the eastern ridge of Queens Canyon above the quarry”, and the available advice of the experienced experts with USFS and the Federal Type 1 IMT Incident Commander Rich Harvey . The chaos for the firefighters and the evacuees caught in the “too late” mandatory evacuation notice was not the fault of the “boots on the ground”!!!
    4)Per the Gazette, CSFD Fire Chief Rich Brown states “no 3rd party review”! Grievances from the emergency responders “will not be released to public due to privacy policy issues”and all City Emergency Responders told by Fire Chief Brown “not allowed to talk to any media about the Waldo Canyon incident at any time going forward” .
    Responsible, Transparent, Trust-worthy City Officials?
    The “Final AAR” self review is just MORE half truths, diversionary tactics, and omissions of facts
    By Mayor Bach, Fire Chief Rich Brown, Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dubay to cover up
    their culpable conduct that makes them guilty of gross negligence manslaughter!
    Deborah Stout-Meininger (“MisFire” 12/12/12
    (“Tapes Show Waldo Canyon Fire Evacuations Delayed Two Hours” 7/20/12
    Wildfires…United We Stand, Divided We Fail…Citizens and Emergency Responders as a Team…

  4. @Johnny Utah: I don’t take this as a knock on CO Spgs firefighters, but a serious look at some very obvious failures/poor decisions that were made – many of which were made prior to the destruction of homes. The biggest failure? The CO Spgs decision to not work in unison with those managing the larger fire. That decision put the folks on the ground in a very poor position to respond to events.

  5. Don’t look now, here it comes again. How is the initial attack air program coming along. Remember the movie Up in Smoke featuring the two home boys? If the weather doesn’t cooperate Colorado will be the sequeal.

  6. Captain Hindsight could help. (

    He was a journalist before he decided to employ his perfect ability to see into the past. As a useless super hero.

    And that’s what’s troubling about so much of this criticism. Sure. The Colorado Springs Fire Department didn’t save the town from a monster fire. It didn’t go as smoothly as it could have. We know that–now–with our collective ability to see into the past.

    Do things ever go as you’d hoped they would? Naw. They don’t. Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t remembering all the times they didn’t make the perfect call, didn’t order the tanker or the crew or have the plan perfectly dialed.

    I’ve been on plenty of fires where things didn’t go perfectly. The comm plan was horrible. The med plan was a joke. The structure protection folks didn’t know who was where. And if things turn out ok, we get high fives. We get signs in the streets and lines of public with cookies and lemonade. None of those folks say “well, your IAP wasn’t implemented EXACTLY as you intended and you never really had LCES in place, and oh yeah, all those Fire Orders you bent and shattered? Heck. No worries. Everyone’s safe, and all the public is safe, so we’ll just look past all that.”

    We’re humans. In the fog of war, things NEVER go as planned. Type 1 teams loose structures all the time. Folks who’ve been around ICS for decades still fail to follow the system. Comm plans are never perfect, and neither is the medical plan.

    We’re humans, and so are the Colorado Springs firefighters.

    Does pilling on help anyone at this point? Or does it simply send a perfect message: “Mess up and you’ll be next. You’ll have the Pulitzer winner and her hindsight goggles on your porch.”

    1. To jonny utah…the error was Colorado Springs head Fire Chief Brown , Deputy Fire Chief Dubay, Deputy Fire Chief Smith, the OEM Mgr , the Fire Marshal , and Police Chief all playing Executive Assistant to Mayor Bach’s edict of “No one in charge within City Limits except the Mayor”…instead being Emergency Responders and following protocol for Level 1 Federal IC integration , Iike all other agencies in the area did for the Waldo Canyon Fire. Lesson is there is unnecessary loss of life and property when Emergency Responders Leadership are too busy playing politics instead of implementing standard Emergency Protocol. This is not a matter of “nobody is perfect” and “only hind site is perfect”…this was a matter of “power play and politics” being given precedence over the safety and welfare of the people in the city ,during an ongoing disaster, to the point of “gross negligence”. And putting 23 engines for 187 homes for Cedar Heights and only 4 Engines for 1400+ homes in Mountain Shadows up THROUGH THE FIRE ENTERING the homes and streets, is as unconscionable as what happened in Hurricane Katrina to the “not so affluent citizens” parts of town. NO EXCUSE FOR THAT KIND OF NEGLIGENCE by the ONES IN CHARGE when THEY DID NOT ALLOW the “boots on the ground” to be where they needed to be based on 2 DAYS of worsening conditions , then did nothing to change that status as the fire came over the hill. The CSFD “boots on the ground” were NOT ALLOWED to communicate with the (CERITFIED) FEDERAL Level 1 IC and CSFD “boots on the ground” requests for additional apparatus and firefighters and mandatory evac that Tuesday morning and early afternoon WERE IGNORED by CSFD Leadership , CSFD IC Dubay, CS OEM, and Mayor Bach. The same type Wild Land Urban Interface community and same parameters of Wildfire incident happened in the Caughlin Wildfire, Nov 2011 in Reno, Nevada. 4000 homes, 60-85 mph wind burst (more than Mountain Shadows)…only 100 homes burned, no fire fatalities…
      What a difference a Mayor …and the Leadership in Emergency Management… makes.
      Put this in your “hind sight” for “future reference”…Common Sense and putting People Lives and Safety before Power mongering and Politics IS NOT OPTIONAL…EVER!

      WILDFIRES..Citizens and Emergency Responders as a Team…
      United we stand, Divided we fail.


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