by Pam Zubeck
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall says the U.S. Forest Service and military made good partners during the Waldo Canyon Fire, a conclusion he reached following an after-action review by federal and state agencies, including the military, at Peterson Air Force Base yesterday. Type 1 team Incident Commander Rich Harvey also attended yesterday's review, Udall said.
The Independent reported the meeting would take place in its story Wednesday about what kind of analyses will be undertaken to study responses to the fire.
"The first conclusion was the U.S. Forest Service, military and other agencies largely worked well together," Udall said this morning. In fact, the fire was the first time the military and U.S. Forest Service deployed a "dual status commander" since the concept was proposed following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That concept involved National Guard personnel commanding active-duty military personnel and acting as a liaison between the Forest Service and military.
Although Udall says aircraft were properly deployed on the fire, he acknowledged that further study of resources is needed for the years to come.
"What we do have is a mixture of private-sector aircraft, some government-leased aircraft from Forest Service and the military," he said. "What we’ve heard over and over again … is that there are enough aircraft available, but they are concerned about the age of the fleet and in some cases the capabilities of the fleet."
That said, Udall emphasized that wars against forest fires aren't won from the air.
"Air tankers play an important supporting role, but most important is ground crews," he said. "You have to have your troops on the ground to win. The incident commander is a conductor who has a very challenging job fighting that fire, but in the end it’s the firefighters on the ground, just like the infantry, that really make the difference."
Udall also stressed that agencies who battled the blaze did a good job of working together.
Pressed by the Independent to elaborate on that statement, Udall named the Forest Service, the state, "fire district personnel," military tankers, Fort Carson and Peterson personnel and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. He did not name the city of Colorado Springs.
"The reason we had an after-action review was to identify successes and what we could do better in the future," he said, noting the fire was "an extreme event."
When another reporter asked specifically how the city performed, Udall said, "Our focus yesterday was on the U.S. Forest Service, the state Forest Service and the military response to the fire."
He called the local agencies' response "an important part of the fire" but not part of the AAR's focus, although that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a discussion of "how we could further coordinate among these agencies."
The Indy has reported serious issues with how the city responded to the fire, including the last-minute evacuation of upper Mountain Shadows, where 345 homes burned and two people were killed; the failure to seek help from mutual aid partners in the region until fire was rolling into Mountain Shadows; the lack of training of top Fire Department leaders have in wildland firefighting; and how the city deployed its own resources, which left about a dozen apparatus assigned to the fire to the west of Interstate 25 even as homes were burning.
Sheriff Terry Maketa is conducting an after action review of the fire, as is the city. The city's report is due in 2013. Maketa says his report will come in several months.