by Pam Zubeck
Mayor Steve Bach will ask City Council later this month to appropriate $100,000 toward a multi-agency investigation of the Waldo Canyon Fire.
Bach announced the city will join in a larger review of the fire, a step he initially indicated was unlikely, at a news conference today at the Police Operations Center called to discuss the city's final After Action Report of the fire. That report can be found here:
Bach spoke for nine minutes during the 50-minute news conference and then left without taking questions.
"I very much appreciate Senators [Mark] Udall and [Michael] Bennet, Rep. [Doug] Lamborn and certainly our Gov. [John] Hickenlooper, who did everything possible to be of help to our community," Bach said. "And Senators Udall and Bennet had proposed a scientific and comprehensive review of this fire along with the High Park fire that occurred also last summer as a follow on study."
We reported about one aspect of that study last month that looks at how fire spreads and why.
"We fully support that and we are going to will be participating in that, and we'll be asking City Council to fund that participation by us," he said. "I'm very confident in the results of this After Action Report. I've read it carefully. I believe we did everything in a reasonable manner that we could have in that situation and more. But we've learned lessons."
After Bach left, his Chief of Staff Laura Neumann said the request would go to Council on April 22. Bach's initial funding request will be $100,000, she said, but added, "We will share appropriately and are prepared to ask for as much as it will cost to get the study conducted." Neumann said the state and U.S. Forest Service will be involved as well as "some other agencies."
It was unclear whether one of those might be an otherwise uninvolved third party. In wildfire-plagued California, such reviews are routinely done by the state Emergency Management Agency, which operates independently; elsewhere, private agencies have led reviews of severe fires.
Emergency Operations Manager Bret Waters said the study will examine how all the agencies who participated in the fire cooperated during the event, among other things.
"We really think it's valuable to look at the complete Waldo Canyon Fire, and that's why we want to participate in the whole review, the whole study," Waters said. "This [AAR] looks at the city of Colorado Springs. It does not evaluate very complex interactions between many agencies, including the IMT [federal Incident Management Team]. We think it's valuable to encourage a larger study, and we'll be happy to assist in it."
The news conference featured an account of the fire by Fire Capt. Steve Riker, who was commander in the field on June 26 when nearly 350 homes were destroyed and two people, Barbara and William Everett, were killed when the Waldo fire swept into the city.
Often choking back tears, Riker described his predicament of having to essentially cover the entire west edge of the city with only three crews. "I never imagined this fire was going to blow into the city the way it did," he said.
After fire companies retreated twice at his behest to 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road, Riker said, he at one time thought he would have to retreat yet again to Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road.
He told of how he worried about losing firefighters and made accountability of fire personnel a top priority. He also noted Denver fire companies raced into the burning subdivision without checking in with local authorities, one aspect Springs officials hope will be covered in the multi-agency review.
"I will forever be grateful for this city and this department and what they did for the city that evening," he said.
Bach urged city residents to contact the fire marshal's office to arrange for mitigation training and other help by calling 385-5950. It's a consistant message delivered by city officials at town hall meetings and elsewhere since the Waldo fire ignited.
That's because, as Fire Chief Rich Brown noted at the news conference, Colorado Springs has the largest urban-wildland interface area in the state and the ninth-most-threatened in the western United States.