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.
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. Continue reading “Sheriff’s office releases report about Waldo Canyon Fire”
(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.
The Fire Adapted Communities Coalition has prepared an excellent report titled “Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon”. Written by representatives from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, U.S. Forest Service, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the NFPA, it documents factors that affected the destruction or survival of structures during the Waldo Canyon Fire, a fire that destroyed 346 Colorado Springs homes in June of 2012. This document, along with the Texas report, “Common Denominators of Home Destruction”, could be very useful resources for communities and home owners that desire to mitigate potential damage before wildfires threaten their wildland-urban interface.
Often you will see media reports using words like “random” or “miracle” to describe how some homes are burned while others survive a wildfire that burns into a community. It is neither — it is science — and fuel reduction, building materials, screening off vents, plugging holes between roof tiles, a lack of combustible decks, the actions your neighbor takes or does not take, and many other factors. And did I mention fuel reduction?
While the city of Colorado Springs and their fire department has received criticism for their lack of operational preparedness and training for wildfires, as well as their actions during the Waldo Canyon Fire, this report indicates the city had a program that resulted in some positive outcomes related to fuel mitigation and home owner education about how to reduce the chances of structures burning during a wildfire event.
Here is a sample of some of the conclusions identified in the report:
Observations on building design and materials improvements and maintenance could have reduced losses:
Ember ignition via ignition of combustible materials on, in or near the home was confirmed by the surveys. This reaffirms the serious risk posed by ember ignitions to properties during wildfires. This reinforces the importance of maintaining an effective defensible space and regularly removing debris from areas on and near the home.
Home-to-home fire spread was again a major issue, as with prior post-fire field investigations. When it occurred, it was dependent on at least one wildland fire-to-home ignition and then home spacing and slope / terrain. Home-to-home fire spread was attributed to a relatively large number of home losses in this survey.
Wildland fire-to-home ignition was influenced by location of home on slope and fuels treatment(s) or lack of on the slope leading to the home.
A building can be hardened with noncombustible materials, for example, but it is also necessary to incorporate appropriate construction details, which will help ensure that the protections offered by those materials is not by-passed.
Individual homeowners must take responsibility for fortifying their property against wildfire damage by taking appropriate measures to incorporate noncombustible building materials and construction details.
Observations on the role of fuels management and landscape vegetation and features:
Past fuel treatments by mastication in heavy, continuous, mature Gambel oak retained multi-season effectiveness for reducing wildfire spread. Two- and three-year-old oak treatments did not carry fire. Oak leaves were scorched, but did not typically burn.
Hardened landscape barriers such as noncombustible retaining walls, paths and gravel borders were effective in stopping fire in lighter fuel types.
Pruning and thinning of ladder fuels in Gambel oak clumps, as a Firewise practice by homeowners, appeared to be effective in keeping fire on the ground and reducing crown fire potential.
Firewise landscape plants, primarily deciduous trees and shrubs, were scorched but did not burn when exposed to heat from adjacent crowning fuels.
Landscaping fencing contributed to fire spread from adjacent native areas to structures. Split rail and cedar privacy fencing both led fire to structures.
When we posted the article about President Obama visiting the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs July 29, 2012, we searched for photos of the President meeting with wildland firefighters, but only found pictures of him with structural firefighters… until today when we ran across the photo above.
The fire burned 18,247 acres and destroyed 346 homes.