In Colorado the local sheriff is responsible for the suppression of wildfires in unincorporated areas, regardless of the amount of training and experience the elected official may have in the management of wildfires. Yesterday the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office released a 27-page report about the Waldo Canyon Fire that blackened over 18,000 acres, burned 347 homes, and killed two people when it spread into Colorado Springs June 26, 2012. We can add this report to the two already issued by the city of Colorado Springs, and hopefully, a report to be released some day by the U.S. Forest Service which initially had jurisdiction for the fire that started in the Pike National Forest just west of the city.
Even though the most serious impacts of the fire were in Colorado Springs, the city refused to delegate authority for the Incident Management Team to manage the fire within their city limits, and pretty much operated on their own as hundreds of homes in the Mountain Shadows area burned and two people were killed. The County Sheriff’s report referred to this in an indirect way, as seen below:
“In preparation for the arrival of the Type 1 Team, Delegations of Authority were received from all affected jurisdictions except one agency. ****Note**** Delegations of Authority in this context refer to documents that permit state and national resources to provide assistance in local jurisdictions. These documents do not diminish or relinquish the responsibility of local authority.”
Here are some key developments during the first five days of the fire:
Friday, June 22, 2012. The first smoke report was at 7:50 p.m. The U.S. Forest Service and several agencies responded, but did not locate the smoke. All of the firefighters were released at 9:48 p.m. by the USFS who had assumed command of the incident.
Saturday, June 23, 2012. The next morning at 6:58 a.m. the USFS was back on scene. At 7:30 a.m. there was another report of smoke in the area. At noon after several other reports of smoke, the fire was located. About 20 minutes later more firefighting resources were ordered including a single engine air tanker. This is the first indication of any aviation resources, helicopters or air tankers, being requested for the fire. Shortly after that the Colorado Springs Fire Department ordered the voluntary evacuation of several areas. That afternoon a Type 3 Incident Management Team assumed command of the fire and a Type 1 IMTeam was ordered. Mandatory evacuations for some areas began at 3:12 p.m.
Sunday, June 24, 2012. Just after midnight the USFS reported the fire had burned about 4,000 acres. At 6 a.m. the Type 3 IMTeam transitioned to a Type 2 IMTeam. The first time heavy air tankers were mentioned in the report was that at 8:23 a.m. two were en route. The report refers to two command posts, the Type 3 Incident Command Post and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Mobile Command Post. Four of the eight military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers were mobilized. (The other four, including two from Colorado Springs, were not mobilized until June 29.)
Monday, June 25, 2012. At 6 a.m. the Type 2 IMTeam (or the Type 3 IMTeam, the report was confusing about this) transitioned to the Type 1 IMTeam. The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for 10:00 a.m. through 9:00 p.m.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Another Red Flag Warning was in effect from noon until 9 p.m. At approximately 2 p.m., air resources were diverted to another large fire in Boulder County. By mid-afternoon a large convection column of smoke with ice-capping had developed over the Waldo Canyon fire. At 5:35 p.m the fire spread into the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs. This was the area where most of the 347 homes destroyed in the fire were located. Two people were later found dead in their home, William Everett, 74, and Barbara Everett, 73. The report said, “When the fire entered western Colorado Springs, Sheriff’s Office OEM requested and organized firefighting aid from El Paso and Pueblo Counties. These resources responded under the direction of the [Sheriff’s Office] Wildland Fire Crew to help protect homes in Mountain Shadows.”
The Sheriff’s report does not contain any Earth-shaking revelations, and neither does it have much in the way of serious criticism. Twice it said the department should have more radio batteries. The report cited some issues where there is room for improvement. Here are a few of them:
- Field resources were directly contacting other agencies to request additional resources, without going through the IMTeam or any established ordering process.
- In the early stages of the fire the Incident Commander could not be contacted at times because he or she was out in the field “assessing the fire”.
- The terms “pre-evacuation, voluntary evacuation and mandatory evacuation” were confusing to the public.
- Reverse 911 calls did not reach residents’ cell phones that had not been registered with the service.
- “Some staff in the Joint Information Center was not familiar with ICS which created some confusion as to the flow and source of information. ICS training or a brief orientation upon assignment to the JIC could assist with this issue.”
There were many things that worked well, according to the report. One that was interesting was this:
Social media in the Joint Information Center was a valuable tool. One designated social media representative tweeted on behalf of several agencies simultaneously which ensured consistency with updates and directions.
On June 23, 2012, the day the fire started, there were eight large fires burning in Colorado and 16 uncontained large fires in the country. On June 26 when the Waldo Canyon Fire moved into Colorado Springs burning 347 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 in 2002.
Two Korean War vintage P2V air tankers crashed June 3, 2012, killing Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless bringing the total number of air tankers down from 11 to 9. Four military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers were mobilized on June 24 and four more on June 29.
We may never know if the shortage of air tankers had anything to do with the loss of two lives and 347 homes in Colorado Springs. Fighting fire on the cheap does not save money.
Insurance companies paid an estimated $353 million for damage caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire. Statewide in 2012 they paid an estimated $450 million for damages caused by wildfires. These figures do not take into account other damages not covered by insurance.
And we may not ever know if a more aggressive initial attack during the first 24 hours of the Waldo Canyon fire would have prevented the fire from killing two people and burning 347 homes. Not locating the fire until 16 hours after the first report, and failing to use large air tankers until 36 hours after it was reported may have allowed the fire to grow to the point where firefighters became spectators — having to wait until either the weather or the fuel changed. Unfortunately, 347 homes and two people became fuel.
Thanks go out to Rick