Just as the Waldo Canyon Fire pushed toward Colorado Springs city limits on Tuesday, June 26, two tanker planes that had been bombarding the western border of the city with slurry flew off to another fire, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says.
Did their departure contribute to the Waldo fire's explosive growth into the city? Maybe, maybe not. But it's one of many operational factors that an unbiased examination would sort out.
"Pulling the [aircraft] off this fire raises the question, 'Does the federal government have enough resources throughout the West?'" Maketa says. "It's a bigger picture than where the city or county fell short."
Maketa plans to release his after-action report next month, which he says found "nothing earth-shattering." But the sheriff is also willing to invest up to $100,000 toward a third-party investigation, which the National Association of Fire Investigators estimates could cost up to $250,000.
"It's human nature to maybe not bring a lot of criticism on yourself," Maketa says. "I think a neutral set of eyes — uninvolved, with no investment here, looking at all aspects of it, reviewing all the information — would be invaluable, not only for us but for the western United States."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is on board, too, says director of communications Eric Brown via e-mail: "We'd support a third-party review."
Mayor Steve Bach, though, isn't biting. And City Council President Scott Hente is only mildly interested, saying, "Can little ol' Colorado Springs effect a change on the federal level?"
The Waldo fire, which started June 23 in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, burned more than 18,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed 345 homes inside the city, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
The city's response to the fire is detailed in the Independent's cover story, "Misfire," published Dec. 12. Based on a five-month investigation centering on firefighter duty reports and other documents and interviews, the report found the city was ill-prepared, evacuated people too late, and placed residents and firefighters at risk due to poor planning and organization. It also points out that the city's Initial After Action Report fails to substantially acknowledge many of these problems.
Bach has ordered outside reviews of other issues, including allegations of financial impropriety raised by former city finance director Terri Velasquez. (The report cost $65,000 and exonerated the city.) But when asked about a third-party review of the fire, Bach issued a statement saying, "The City continues working on the After Action Review of the Waldo Canyon Fire which will be completed by end of first quarter next year. I am satisfied with the process thus far."
Another review is underway at the federal level, but it's limited to forestry issues related to the fire. Asked about a firefighting review, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall's office declined to comment. Pike and San Isabel National Forests supervisor Jerri Marr didn't respond to requests for comment, and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn "has no opinion," his spokesperson says.
Independent after-action reviews are routine in California, where wildland fires are commonplace and deadly.
"The California Emergency Management Agency — the state agency that coordinates response to all major statewide disasters — is required by law to conduct an After Action/Corrective Action report within 120 days of any disaster, including a major wildland firestorm," Carroll Wills, communications director with the California Professional Firefighters, says by e-mail. Wills notes the CalEMA is not the state's firefighting agency, but rather the coordinator, and thus "has the perspective of an independent agency."
As part of CalEMA's information-gathering, all state and local agencies involved in a response must submit after-action reports within 90 days of an incident. The state agency can then not only assess the response, but recommend changes.
In addition, the California Legislature or the governor appoints independent panels to investigate responses. One such blue-ribbon independent task force, composed of fire service professionals, reviewed the fires of 2007 and made more than a dozen recommendations, including funding for more firefighters, engines and aircraft; better tactical abilities for communications among firefighters; and quicker deployment of military resources.
More recently, the 2009 Station Fire, which began in the Angeles National Forest before killing two firefighters and burning more than 160,000 acres, triggered several reviews. The Forest Service's examination concluded the assignment of firefighting resources was "appropriate and consistent" with normal practices, but the federal Government Accountability Office saw it differently. For one thing, its December 2011 report pointed out that the Forest Service didn't use L.A. County's helicopters equipped to fight fires at night, of which they have nine.
While GAO investigators have bemoaned the Forest Service's dismissal of some of its recommendations, the Forest Service did work out an agreement with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to allow federal deployment of those helicopters, says L.A. County Assistant Fire Chief Mike Metro.
"What that has led to is the Forest Service is becoming much more willing to use our aircraft at night on Forest Service land," he says. "That was a significant finding in the Station Fire."
Of course, Colorado Springs and El Paso County don't have helicopters, but the feds' use of aerial support has been a contentious point.
Some residents complain that military firefighting aircraft weren't airborne on Waldo soon enough. They first flew on Monday, June 25, according to news reports.
Four other C-130s, nearly half the nine military planes available to the Forest Service, weren't mobilized for firefighting in the Rocky Mountain region until June 30, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release. C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) can drop 3,000 gallons of water or retardant in less than five seconds over a quarter-mile-long swath.
Maketa recounts that about 2:15 p.m., Tuesday, June 26, he watched two MAFFS planes make drops to fight the Waldo fire.
"They were really trying to saturate Queens Canyon with slurry," he says. But just minutes later, they flew away and didn't return. About 3 p.m., Maketa asked Type 1 Team Incident Commander Rich Harvey about it.
"He said, 'You're not going to believe this, but they've been diverted to High Park,'" Maketa recounts, referring to the fire near Fort Collins that burned about 87,000 acres, destroyed 259 homes and killed one person.
"I said, 'What do you mean?'" Maketa recounts. "'He said, 'They're a national resource. They'll dump a couple loads and will be back on our fire.'"
It's unclear if the planes returned, and gusty winds might have grounded them anyway. But the incident is an example of one thing that could be explored in a third-party review.
Here's another: Maketa thinks local agencies should be given permission to create a permanent firebreak between the Pike forest and the city and other populated areas. The break could both impede a fire from moving into the city and allow firefighters access to, and a safe escape route from, the vicinity.
"This would give responders the ability to draw a line to mitigate and manage a fire and protect our city," he says. "If a community came together — our congressional delegation, state lawmakers — and said, 'Yes, there's value in this,' it would happen."