Waldo Canyon Fire: 'They didn't know what they were getting into'

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Waldo Canyon Fire

Once the Waldo Canyon Fire breached Rampart Range Road, there was no hope of stopping the fire from blazing into Colorado Springs, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said today.

That's because the road provided the only access point for firefighters to battle the blaze on that side of the fire, one of several weaknesses identified in Maketa's After Action Report of the fire, which destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs and killed two people in June.

Maketa said local officials should try to work with forestry agencies to secure fire breaks near the forest so that firefighters can better access rugged wildlands during fires that threaten population centers.

The sheriff also said people working the fire sometimes didn't communicate resource needs through Incident Command, causing confusion, and emergency operations centers set up by the county, Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Fire Department and possibly other agencies proved difficult to manage and staff. There should be fewer EOCs, he said, possibly just one where all agencies work together.

"We have already started these discussions with the fire department, police department and Bret Waters [city chief of emergency operations management] because they realize the same," Maketa said.

Those are but a few findings in the AAR, which officials said would be posted at the sheriff's website, if not today, soon.

Waldo Canyon Fire
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Sheriff Maketa issues his After Action Report at the Sheriff's Office.

One initiative from the fire is a "ready, set, go" evacuation planning tool, also on the sheriff's website, that helps people understand what to pack for absences that could last days or weeks, and what various terms mean, such as pre-evacuation, voluntary evacuation and mandatory evacuation.

Maketa said he's working with Gen. Charles Jacoby, Jr., head of Northern Command based at Peterson Air Force Base, about quicker deployment of air tankers. Now, the tankers can't fly until fire commanders work through a complex protocol, and Maketa wants to streamline the process.

"We're setting ourselves up for failure when we bring a light aircraft that we know won't get the job done," he said. "Gen. Jacoby is sensitive to this."

Maketa said much went right with the county's response to the fire. First, the county provided significant technical support to the federal Type 1 Team's Incident Command Post. Indeed, the U.S. Forest Service's "Narrative Summary" of the fire, written as the team demobilized after the fire, praises the county several times.

"El Paso County and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office were instrumental in providing plotters and personnel to produce the maps and IAPs [incident action plans]," the federal report states. "A special thank you goes to Ross Williams, Brian Olson and Imad Karaki for supporting the Situation Unit for the first 72 hours of operation."

And again:

Thanks to local resources from the Forest, other team members, and Nicola Sapp's support team from the El Paso County Budget Administration office — in conjunction with personnel from the EOC — the IAP was produced and available for the first operational briefing. The El Paso County employees were instrumental for nearly a week in copying the IAPs and maps for both Operational Periods [morning and night]. They were prompt, understood directions, and were excited to be assisting the effort.

Maketa praised his deputies and others for executing safe, timely and thorough evacuations, which were carried out door-to-door and with "meticulous" documentation of those who refused to leave. Deputies gathered contact information for later notification of next of kin, he said. The evacuated areas saw no significant looting or burglaries, he said.

Waldo Canyon Fire
  • Pam Zubeck
  • TV cameras at UCCS last summer. Sheriff Maketa credited the media with helping notify the public during the Waldo Canyon Fire.

Maketa credited the media for its coverage, which assisted officials in conveying messages to the public. He noted the first TV station to expand coverage to 24 hours was KKTV-11, which provided the Sheriff's Office with footage used in writing the AAR. Broadcast coverage, Maketa said, became a source of information for decision-makers, and Twitter played a key role in keeping the public informed.

Maketa says some shortcomings can be addressed with training, others with multi-agency cooperation. He hopes to accomplish many gains with existing funding, he said.

"We need a pre-agreed upon plan," he said, adding all agencies need to know and follow protocols for which radio channels are dedicated to certain tasks and agencies. "It's applying policies and getting these things in place. We had units coming in, nobody knew they were coming in. They didn't know what they were getting into."

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