by Pam Zubeck
City officials were largely self-congratulatory this morning at a news conference to unveil the initial after-action report on the Waldo Canyon Fire. Considering two lives (those of William and Barbara Everett) and 345 homes were lost in Mountain Shadows, city officials said a lot went right with fighting the blaze.
Fire Chief Rich Brown said the Fire Department and Springs Police Department collaborated well. He also noted personnel performed soundly, from those on the front lines to the decision-makers.
Of course, those 26,000 people who had minutes to follow evacuation orders on Tuesday, June 26, might disagree with those statements.
Brown boasted, too, about the city's wildland fire plan and risk assessment, coupled with a "strong community education campaign" about fire potential in the wildland urban interface.
Still, it should be noted, homes surrounded by heavy vegetation and topped with shake shingle roofs were incinerated within the first two hours (Brown's time estimate) of the fire sweeping into the city.
Police Chief Pete Carey was a little more circumspect, saying the evacuation, though difficult, "went really well." He said the 55 on-duty officers that day were joined by an emergency call-out of 60 detectives to evacuate.
Bret Waters, the city's emergency operations manager, said the city had worked with Cedar Heights residents to clear brush from homes during the three years leading up to the blaze. It also trained on animal sheltering for years, and developed relationships with the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region and the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross that came in handy during the fire.
Communications, Waters acknowledged, posed a problem, as thousands of cell phone calls flooded and eventually shut down the 911 system. The city, he says, needs to get the message to the public that cell phones can't be relied upon during such an emergency.
Detailing the events of that fateful Tuesday, Brown noted, "We were expecting the fire to move north to the Air Force Academy," and that "the fire was going to move a quarter mile an hour, a slow-progressing fire."
When the fire "broke into the city with extreme speed," Capt. Steve Riker knew what his orders were and directed the firefighting effort. "The incident was managed to my satisfaction when the event blew into the city that afternoon," Brown said.
Responding to a question about who called mutual aid, Brown said early in the fire, El Paso County called for help for its area of the fire. When it came into the city, the city called for help, he said. Managing those resources proved challenging, though. "You can't [get] them into the fire quick enough," he said. "We weren't beefed up to handle that many people who came in and couldn't get into the fire."
Mayor Steve Bach told police and firefighters at the news conference, "You're all heroes in my book," and called the fire an "epic event."
He said U.S. Forest Service official Jerri Marr told him to expect four to five hours' warning to evacuate Mountain Shadows, but everything sped up when a pyrocumulus cloud that built over the fire on that Tuesday fell.
"The situation changed very dramatically and quickly," he said. "It's tragic we lost those two lives. It could have been many more."
He described seeing a sea of headlights as people fled the burning hills. "I thought, 'Those poor people trying to get out of there.' But they got out."
He also warned that another conflagration is possible, since there are tens of thousands of homes within the wildland-urban interface in Colorado Springs. "The risk is still here," he said. "We could have lost thousands of homes and thousands of lives ... Everyone who lives in a wildland area is at risk. People must take action."
The final version of the report will be released before the end of March.
Here's the initial report:
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also released the following:
Mark Udall welcomed a preliminary report released today by the city of Colorado Springs that detailed the magnitude of the Waldo Canyon Fire and reviewed the city’s response.
“The Waldo Canyon Fire was a catastrophic wildfire that tested agencies at the local, state and federal level. We can always improve our response to wildfires and we can always learn,” Udall said. “Wildfires are an unfortunate part of life in Colorado, but it is because of reviews like this one and those I led in the wake of the devastating 2012 fire season that we will be better prepared to protect life and property in future blazes.”
Udall, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been a leader on forest health and wildfire issues throughout his time working in Congress. Udall recently requested a federal review of the Waldo Canyon Fire and attended the 2012 Forest Health Summit in Denver, where he delivered introductory remarks.
“I look forward to working with Mayor Steve Bach, the Colorado Springs City Council, El Paso County Commissioners and the communities throughout El Paso County to provide them with whatever federal assistance is available to help them brace for future fires and to make their residents safer,” Udall added.
Udall also has been a champion of encouraging homeowners living in wildfire-prone areas to take the steps necessary to lower their wildfire risk. According to a U.S. Forest Service study of the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder County — a study Udall requested — the condition of the Home Ignition Zone, the design, materials and the maintenance of the home and the area 100 feet around it, is critical to determining if a home will survive a wildfire.
Udall has encouraged business owners and residents living in and around the areas affected by this year’s record-setting Waldo Canyon and High Park fires to utilize the available federal resources, including loan assistance and flood-insurance waivers, to help them and their communities recover.
For more information on how you can work on wildfire prevention for your home or in your community, please visit www.ready.gov/wildfires.