Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith continues to restrict media coverage of High Park fire

High Park fire as seen from ICP
Smoke from the High Park Fire seen from the Incident Command Post at the Colorado National Guard Readiness Center near Fort Collins, Colo. (Official Army National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Skye Robinson) (Released)

Justin Smith, the County Sheriff of Larimer County, is continuing to restrict media coverage of the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, Colorado. On June 11 we covered Sheriff Smith’s request that the media not show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to the homeowners. That request was generally ignored by news outlets.

Nick Christensen, executive officer for the sheriff’s department, was quoted recently as saying, “Our philosophy is the citizens need to see the damage and destruction before the general public.”

Sheriff Smith claims he can decide what the media can cover and what they can’t cover, and not just for the safety of the reporters. That is a great deal of power to put in the hands of a county sheriff.

Colorado law puts the county sheriff in charge of fires on state and private land in unincorporated areas if the fire exceeds the capacity of a single fire department. Other states see it differently, putting an agency that specializes in fire suppression in charge of fires. Texas also has an archaic system, and puts a County Judge in charge of fires in some areas.

Here are some excerpts from a June 20 AP story about Sheriff Smith’s restrictions on media coverage:

…Journalists say the Colorado restrictions are too strict and hurt their ability to report.

“I’m sympathetic to their desire to help the victim,” said Joey Bunch, a reporter for The Denver Post. “I’m not sympathetic to their desire to control what’s going on.”

Bunch, a 27-year-veteran who has covered numerous natural disasters, said the Larimer sheriff’s restrictions are “the most concerted effort I’ve seen to get between the press and the victims.”

At some previous wildfires in Colorado and in other states, authorities have escorted news media into evacuation zones before residents or the general public was allowed in, sometimes while the fire is still active.

With the current fire, “They’re robbing the victims of the chance to tell their story,” Bunch said. “The larger public isn’t being able to fully appreciate the size of the fire and the size of the tragedy because the story isn’t being told.”

Fire management teams routinely try to get journalists safe access to fires to get the news out, said Mike Ferris, a public information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

“Generally, I’ll do everything I can to get you access to get your story,” he said.

Rules for media access vary from state to state and even from wildfire to wildfire. In California, state law allows news organizations virtually unfettered access to fires. Other states leave the decisions up to the agency responsible for the land involved…


…In one incident, the sheriff’s department withheld for 24 hours a video recording, made by a fire official inside the evacuation zone using an NBC News camera and tape. NBC News producer Jack Chesnutt said he thought he would get the tape back immediately to share with other news outlets.

Christensen, the sheriff’s executive officer, said the department always intended to show the video to evacuated residents before returning it.

“These are not the conditions that I thought we had agreed to when we handed them the camera,” Chesnutt said. He called the High Park Fire coverage restrictions “unprecedented.”…

Thanks go out to Paul and Dick

National Guard photos of the High Park fire

National Guard Bambi bucket
Nebraska National Guard crewmembers of Company C 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Battalion dump water from a Bambi bucket onto flames of the High Park Fire, June 18, 2012. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Tate Petersen, Company C, 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Support)

The National Guard has deployed Blackhawk helicopters from several states to the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado. Additionally Guardsmen from Colorado are augmenting the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department to provide assistance in securing evacuated areas. They posted these photos to Flicker, and some of them, especially the one above showing a rare view from a helicopter while dropping water, are exceptionally good.

Fire seen through Blackhawk door
Kansas Guardsmen Sgt. Sheldon Snodgrass, a flight instructor with Company G, 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Battalion, observes the High Park Fire in Larimer County, Colo., approximately 15 miles west of Fort Collins while out on a Bambi bucket mission to help provided structure protection, June 15, 2012. (Photo by Sgt. Ryan Kohlman, Company G, 2nd-135th General Support Aviation Battalion)
Firefighters on Highway
High Park Fire, June 18, 2012. (Official Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Jess Geffre/RELEASED)

(More photos are below.)

Continue reading “National Guard photos of the High Park fire”

Denver Post, on the air tanker issue

Tanker 42 at JEFFCO
Tanker 42, a CV-580, at JEFFCO, June 9, 2012. Photo by Shane Hervey

Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post has written a well-researched article about the current state of what is left of the federal air tanker fleet, cut by 80 percent over the last 10 years. He did something that few reporters have done. He actually read some of the largely ignored studies that well-respected experts have completed on how to improve the safety and efficiency of aerial firefighting.

One of the most authoritative studies was contributed by the Blue Ribbon Panel, convened after two museum-age air tankers literally fell apart in midair in 2002. That report as well as the other studies can be found on our Wildfire Documents page. The Blue Ribbon Panel was co-chaired by Jim Hall, former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety board who has an opinion about the current state of the air tanker fleet.

You should read the article, but here are some excerpts:


It’s impossible to know whether the High Park fire could have been stalled in its early stages on June 9 when the lightning-caused fire blew up.

First signs of the fire were called in to dispatchers about 6 a.m. A smaller single-engine air tanker, which can carry about 800 gallons of retardant, was over the fire by 9 a.m.

A heavy air tanker sent from Grand Junction was on the fire by noon, according to Steve Segin, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.
The federal government convened the blue-ribbon panel to study the system, which resulted in a scathing report that blasted the Forest Service’s air tanker system, calling it “unsustainable” and the industry’s safety record of 136 dead pilots since 1958 “abysmal.” At least four large air tankers have crashed since then, killing 10 people, according to a website tracking the fatalities.

The 2002 panel recommended a host of fixes, including that the fleet be modernized, pilots receive more training, planes get more inspections and the contracting process be changed.
Hall, the blue-ribbon panel chair, said he has been dismayed by the lack of urgency in Congress as the threat of fire in the West has increased because of climate change and an epidemic of beetle-killed trees.

“We put out a report 10 years ago that is as current as if we had issued it yesterday,” Hall said. “This reliance on old military aircraft is not the way that the country needs to address a threat this serious. Why the Forest Service or anyone would think individuals who are putting their lives on the line to save homes and lives should be flying that type of aircraft is beyond me.”

Seven next-generation airplanes over the next two years is a good start but not adequate, said Gabbert, whose blog has been following every process.

“It doesn’t come close to fixing the problem,” he said. “Experts say we need 30 or 40 or even 50. This decision should have been made 10 to 20 years ago. They knew this day would come. Most of the Western U.S.’s fire season hasn’t even started yet.

“When the West really gets into the fire season, that will be the proof.”


More information:


Colorado’s High Park fire grows to 36,000 acres

UPDATE at 8:12 p.m. MT, June 11, 2012:

One person found dead in burned home

At a media briefing tonight at 8 p.m. a spokesperson for Larimer County reported that a deceased person has been found in a burned home. The individual has been tentatively identified as 62-year old Linda Steadman who resided at 9123 Old Flowers Road. Two calls were made to warn Ms Steadman, who had a landline telephone, to evacuate.  When fire officials could not confirm she left her home, they made two attempts to visit her, but were driven back by the fire. On the second attempt the fire officer made it through her locked gate but because of the fire was not able to access the house. At that time the officer thought the house was probably already burning.

Our condolences go out to the Steadman family.

Fire grows on Monday

The fire was mapped on Monday at 41,140 acres.

Sheriff’s Office clashes with media

The Denver Post is reporting that the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office requested that the media not show photos of destroyed homes out of respect to the homeowners. The Larimer County fire and Sheriff’s Office personnel have done an excellent job of keeping the public and media informed of developments on the fire, so this is very surprising. The request was ignored by the media, according to the Post, which provided quotes from media outlets saying it is a journalistic imperative to deliver the news, even if it is not good news.

With the exception of this lapse in judgement by the County officials, they have been excellent examples of how to provide information about a rapidly spreading fire, that Incident Management Teams and fire agencies should emulate. It is a shame they blew it on the attempted ban on photos.

UPDATE at 2:42 p.m. MT, June 11, 2012:

The number of structures that have been destroyed or damaged in the High Park fire has been revised to 118 as firefighters have been able to enter some of the areas that burned in the fire.

UPDATED at 9:21 a.m. MT, June 11, 2012:

High Park Fire 2:25 am MT, June 11, 2012
Map of the High Park Fire in Colorado, showing heat detected by satellites at 2:25 am MT, June 11, 2012. MODIS

The High Park fire has been extremely active since it started early Saturday morning. Over the last 24 hours it has grown to 36,930 acres and approached to within four miles of Fort Collins, Colorado. The map of the fire above shows heat detected by satellites at 2:25 a.m. MT on Monday.

The map below also shows the extent of the fire but with more detail than the previous one.

Map of High Park Fire 2:25 a.m. MT, June 11, 2012
Map of High Park Fire 2:25 a.m. MT, June 11, 2012, showing heat detected by satellites at 2:25 a.m. MT, June 11, 2012, MODIS/Google Earth/Wildfire Today

HERE is a link to a higher resolution version of the above map (300K).

Most of the growth of the fire on Sunday and Sunday night was on the south and southeast sides. It has crossed Highway 14 in at least two places — a small area on the west side of the Hewlett fire (which burned in May), and a second area on the east side of the fire near N Co Rd 29C.

Eighteen structures are confirmed lost or damaged and others are threatened. No details about the structures are available.

On Sunday there were five large air tankers working the fire: two CV-580’s (T-42 and T-45) and three P2V’s (T-48, T-44, and T-06). There are also some Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) assigned to the fire. Most of the air tankers are reloading with retardant at the Rocky Mountain Metro Airport, 48 miles southeast of the fire. On June 9 we posted some photos of the CV-580 air tankers at the airport.

The local fire and law enforcement personnel are doing a good job providing information to the public about the fire and evacuations:

We posted more information about the fire on June 10 and June 9.


High Park fire update and map, June 10, 2012 — very active Saturday night

(On June 11 we posted an update on the High Park fire, which you can see HERE.)

Map of High Park Fire 3:20 a.m. MT, June 10, 2012. MODIS/Google Earth/Wildfire Today
Map of High Park Fire at 3:20 a.m. MT, June 10, 2012, showing heat detected by satellites. MODIS/Google Earth/Wildfire Today

The High Park fire northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado was very active Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Judging from the heat data collected by satellites as shown in the map above, it moved north across Highway 14 and hit the Hewlett fire that burned north of the highway in mid-May. The heat data indicates that it spread east to within approximately a mile of N CO Rd 25E and approximately a mile from the intersection of highways 14 and 287, but these are very crude estimates. And another estimate — the fire appears to us to be more than 20,000 acres if the satellite heat data is accurate. All of this needs to be confirmed by better data than we are getting from a satellite.

A more detailed version of the map of the High Park fire can be downloaded HERE.

To say the fire exhibited extreme fire behavior overnight would not be giving the fire enough credit. Several very experienced firefighters have said the fire’s spread and behavior Saturday night and early Sunday were incredible. Typically a fire will lay down at night, moving much more slowly, but as a cold front passed through the area during the night the winds increased and shifted 45 degrees in direction, WSW to WNW. When the fire was mapped at 10:30 p.m. Saturday night by an infrared aircraft it was 7,400 acres. The MODIS satellite data shown in the map above captured the location of the heat at 3:20 a.m., and unless it was registering the heat in the smoke plume in addition to heat on the ground (which has happened in the past with infrared equipment on fixed wing aircraft when a fire was exhibiting extreme fire behavior), the fire more than doubled in size during that 5-hour period and ran approximately 6 miles. It will be very interesting to see a new fire perimeter after aircraft map it today with GPS equipment.

The local fire and law enforcement personnel are doing a good job of providing information to the public about the fire and evacuations:

The video below is from Saturday, but it has rare footage of a CV-580 air tanker making a drop in the lower 48 states.

High Park Fire as seen from Tie Siding WY June 9, 2012
High Park Fire as seen from Tie Siding, WY June 9, 2012. Photo by Wayne Karberg

Fire west of Fort Collins causing evacuations

(On June 11 we posted an update on the High Park fire which you can see HERE.)


UPDATE at 7:39 a.m. MT, June 10, 2012:

We have an updated map of the High Park Fire HERE.


UPDATE  at 8:32 p.m. MT, June 9, 2012:

The High Park fire west of Fort Collins Colorado has burned or damaged at least 10 structures and approximately 5,000 acres. Many residents have been evacuated and 800 pre-evacuation notifications were sent out within the last few hours when the fire, burning from west to east, crossed County Road 27 south of the Stove Prairie School.

A Type 2 Incident Management team is responding and a Type 1 IMTeam was ordered late this afternoon.

Firefighters are worried about communication equipment and radio repeaters out ahead of the fire on Buckhorn Mountain. If the equipment there burns, it could have a negative effect on the radio communications on the fire. They were hoping to get some air tankers to drop some long term retardant around the site before dark, but it is unknown if they were able to get that done. There are three heavy air tankers working the fire, two CV 580s and one P2V.

A cold front is going to pass through the fire area after midnight bringing even stronger winds which will challenge firefighters. The winds will shift from west-southwest to west-northwest and blow with intensity after midnight and on Sunday. But the temperatures will be 15 to 20 degrees cooler on Sunday.

The local fire and law enforcement personnel are doing a great job of providing information to the public about the fire and evacuations:

Since these agencies have stepped up to the plate in such an outstanding manner, we will cut back on our coverage, and only post information that we don’t see covered elsewhere.

Scroll down to see maps of the High Park fire.


UPDATE at 5:09 p.m. MT, June 9, 2012: Satellite view of the High Point fire.

Satellite map of High Park fire, 4:31 p.m., June 9, 2012
Satellite map of High Park fire, 4:31 p.m., June 9, 2012

We posted some photos of the air tankers that are at the Rocky Mountain Metro Airport, which is the retardant reload base for the fire, 48 miles away.
Continue reading “Fire west of Fort Collins causing evacuations”