A year ago, local, state and federal firefighting forces were slammed with what would become, to that point, the most destructive fire in state history. On its fourth day, the Waldo Canyon Fire blew into Colorado Springs, claiming 347 homes and two lives.
Some things went well, but some others didn't.
Months of studying Waldo, and greater collaboration among agencies over the last year, shaped what officials are calling a superb response to the Black Forest Fire, which ignited June 11. And though the fire set a new record for destruction — ruining more than 500 homes, as of the last estimate before press time, and killing two people — officials say the fire demonstrated that agencies have corrected at least some shortcomings.
Most notably, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa last week praised the military's air attack as the quickest he's seen. Helicopters arrived in seven hours, and slurry planes showed up within 24 hours, a day sooner than on Waldo. "That wasn't by accident," Maketa said. "That's a product of lessons learned from Waldo Canyon."
Meanwhile, on the ground, local fire departments swarmed the fire "blazing fast," as put by Springs Interim Fire Chief Tommy Smith.
So first responders put into action their take-aways from Waldo. And there's already talk of finding ways to fight fires even better.
The fight begins
When the Black Forest Fire broke out at roughly 1:40 p.m., June 11, the gray plume spiraling into the sky looked eerily similar to the one that announced Waldo's arrival. Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey spotted smoke in the vicinity of Shoup Road and Highway 83, and soon "everything was immediately dispatched for Black Forest and automatically dispatched for Don Wescott, and then Tri-Lakes, Monument and Falcon" fire districts.
Harvey, a retired Springs firefighter who's worked federal wildland fires before, pulled up to a half-acre fire and had his hands full.
"I arrived just at the same time the engines were arriving ... and they were establishing hose lays," he says. "[The fire] was in the grass. It was in the brush — just an area that's influenced by the drainages and the erratic winds. The winds were pushing hard."
The fire moved so fast, it was hard to know where to assign the apparatus pouring in.
"I was oftentimes cut off as I went up streets to see if we could reposition," he says. "By the time I pulled down and went to the next street, it was already jumping through. This is probably some of the most rapid fire behavior, besides Waldo Canyon, the area has seen."
Within 15 minutes, he says, the fire had jumped Peregrine Way and was moving toward Milam Road, a distance of about a half-mile. Another 15 minutes pushed the fire past Milam. More than a dozen engines worked the blaze at that time, he says.
During all that, Harvey met up with Brenda Wasielewski, fire management officer with State Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and El Paso County fire marshal Scott Campbell.
"We knew it was going to be a significant enough fire," Harvey says, "so as soon as we could get funding from the state, that was the best way to go. I told the county fire marshal, 'I'm delegating to the county,' and he said he was delegating it to the state."
When Wasielewski asked Harvey if he needed air assets, he told her, "Absolutely."
Then, bad news: Because of firefighting efforts already underway elsewhere in Colorado and the southwest, Harvey says, "They were told [commercial firefighting] aircraft were not available in the zone."
Nine of the 10 tankers available nationwide through contracts were busy on other assignments as far west as California. The 10th had a mandatory day off.
Carson flies in
So Campbell and company found two other places to turn.
At 4:33 p.m., the county sought help from Fort Carson, and the post sent two Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters. By 6:56 p.m., they dropped the first "Bambi Buckets" of water, says Carson spokesman Maj. Earl Brown.
A year ago, those assets weren't available; the post didn't start getting its Combat Aviation Brigade helicopters and pilots until January, Brown says. And it was in April that those choppers received Bambi Buckets — which aren't standard-issue to a CAB — in response to another finding from the Waldo fire. Brown credits U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn's office for securing them.
While the resources themselves were important, so were streamlined protocols that aimed to alleviate "some issues," in Brown's words, that arose during Waldo. Today, Brown says, "if a call comes [from an outside entity], a commander can sign an immediate response authority, which allows commanders to go into action to save lives and prevent suffering and mitigate great property damage." That authority was exercised to launch the helicopters, Brown says.
The second route taken to secure aerial assets went through the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service's Aviation Management section with the NIFC, says via e-mail that when commercial air tankers aren't readily available, planes equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems may be. "This was the situation when the wildfires broke out in Colorado on Tuesday afternoon," she says.
After it was determined no commercial tankers were available, the NIFC began discussing a MAFFS mobilization. The planes' slurry equipment is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and the planes are under the Air Force Reserve. NIFC made a verbal request to the Defense Department around 7:30, and a written request four hours later.
With two planes secured, air crews had to be assembled and the aircraft flown on the morning of June 12 to either Pueblo or Jefferson County to load retardant. Then, explains Ann Skarban with the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, the crews were given specific orders by the fire's air operations unit. The planes got to the fire at 1:30 p.m., about 24 hours after the fire started.
By contrast, MAFFS-equipped aircraft didn't fly the Waldo fire until its third day.
"I think people learned a lot of lessons from a year ago," says John Cornelio, spokesman for U.S. Northern Command based at Peterson, which has operational control of the C-130s once they're activated. "It has been a priority for our organization for how we can help the system to get these aircraft sooner into the game."
Even the city
The aerial show was the most evident, but Fort Carson also sent bulldozers, fire trucks and firefighters, and also helped backfill Springs fire stations. Air Force installations — Schriever AFB, Peterson, the Air Force Academy and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station — also sent personnel and equipment, as they did during Waldo. The academy's airstrip served as a forward fueling station, and its ponds provided water for Bambi drops.
"It is a total interagency meshing of herculean proportions," Brown says.
And apparently, that interagency cooperation includes even the city of Colorado Springs, which suffered through a jumbled Waldo performance.
Within 10 minutes of Harvey's first smoke report, Springs Fire, which was monitoring radio traffic, sent three engines, three brush trucks and a battalion chief. Within the next hour, the Springs dispatched a wildland truck, a medical unit and Deputy Chief Steve Dubay. By 3:20 p.m., another battalion chief, two engines and two brush trucks were sent, along with the department's mobile command vehicle.
That's nearly as many as were sent to Cedar Heights, a neighborhood within city limits, on Waldo's first day, records show.
"A lot of things were moving before the formal request was made," Springs Interim Fire Chief Smith says in an interview.
He reports the city had better plans for command and staffing, based on an overall understanding of how the fire was developing compared to when Waldo erupted.
As soon as the first Springs units were en route to Black Forest, Smith says, he and a command team that included Dubay and Emergency Management Director Bret Waters met, and the Emergency Operations Center and the Fire Department Operations Center opened. Resource requests and assignments were funneled through the Fire Operations Center to reduce confusion and duplication, he says. Staffing decisions were made as requests came in and specific shifts set in place.
During Waldo, all off-duty firefighters were called back to service without clear orders, and some firefighters worked more than 24 hours at a time. Some didn't eat for entire shifts or even longer. Smith says meals during the Black Forest Fire were delivered in a timely way.
"We plugged the holes from Waldo," Smith says. "It seemed to go smoothly, and it's because of Waldo."
Maketa says he could see improvement even in how the public and officials interacted together. Last year, residents demanded re-entry into evacuated areas within a day or two; this time, only a few complaints surfaced on the sixth day. On his end, he prioritized pushing out the destroyed-home list quickly, even though gathering information from some homes (for instance, ones that had no visible addresses) was tricky.
While Maketa says he's been too busy to identify all of Black Forest's lessons, he's already taken advice from the federal Type 1 Team and other outside helpers and ordered maps of populated areas across the county, which may help for the next time. He adds he'll begin an after-action report as soon as possible with Black Forest and Falcon fire departments.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Kent Lambert, whose district includes the Mountain Shadows burn area and Black Forest, says he wants the state to conduct its own after-action review.
A similar study of the 2012 Lower North Fork fire, which killed three people, destroyed 23 homes and burned 1,400 acres in southern Jefferson County, led the state to move its Division of Fire Prevention and Control from Colorado State University to the state's Department of Public Safety. Along similar lines, Lambert wonders whether it would make sense to place the MAFFS planes under the National Guard, instead of the federal government, so a governor can mobilize them.
Generally, it remains to be seen whether the state has the appetite to make its capability more robust. The state Legislature created a Colorado Firefighting Air Corps during this year's session, but failed to fund it. But Lambert says California's CAL FIRE — a statewide network of personnel and equipment, including aerial assets, that tie in federal and military resources — was "heavily discussed" during debate of the aerial firefighting bill. "Is that what we need here?" he says. "I don't know."
Either way, Lambert wants to talk about what can be learned from the fire, which as of Tuesday had cost the state $7 million to fight.
"It's tragic we had two people killed in the fire," Lambert says. "But [in] something of this magnitude, it's a miracle more weren't."