Technology can be unreliable. Training of emergency personnel is crucial. And it helps to give out more information about what's happening, and why.
Those are a few lessons El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa is taking away from the Waldo Canyon Fire, and they could lead to changes in how his office and the county respond to crises in the future.
"We'll take a look at every aspect of our involvement, from the very beginning when we took the report of smoke, even up to present-day," he says, "and find out what we did right, what we could have done better, what we didn't do well, why, and what we can do to address it."
The backbone of his report, overseen by deputy fire marshal Scott Campbell and emergency manager Patricia Baxter, will be a detailed timeline of what happened when. Each entry will be validated with dispatch records, deployment orders and other verifications. And when it's completed, months from now, Maketa will make it open to the public.
"If something didn't go right," Maketa says, "we need to let them know, 'Here's what didn't go right, and here's what we're doing to address it.'"
The historic Waldo Canyon Fire started June 23 and burned 18,327 acres, destroyed 345 homes in Colorado Springs, and killed two city residents. But neither the state nor federal government is currently investigating how the fire was fought, and Colorado Springs Utilities will review only its part in responding to the disaster.
As for the city, Springs Mayor Steve Bach's chief of staff, Laura Neumann, says the Office of Emergency Management will oversee the report, which among other things will include study of the firefighting effort, evacuation orders, the role of other city departments such as transportation and finance, public information and the sheltering of animals and people.
Preliminary findings are expected in September, with the final report due next year, she says in an e-mail. The report will be made public.
In the meantime, however, the city has denied the Independent's request for e-mails and other correspondence from firefighters and other rank-and-file personnel who were recently asked by the Fire Department for input regarding the city's fire response. The city cited the Open Records Act's exemption for "work product," which the law describes as "deliberative materials" that help officials reach decisions, such as drafts of reports.
As previously reported, the city reduced the number of apparatus assigned to the fire June 26, the day the homes burned; failed to evacuate the upper Mountain Shadows neighborhood as soon as a predetermined "trigger point" was reached; and asked some nearby fire personnel for help only once houses were ablaze.
Records also suggest that some top brass have had relatively little wildland firefighting training.
In Maketa's review, even the date the fire began will be studied. He thinks the ember that later exploded in Pike National Forest actually ignited June 22 — but couldn't be found that night by Cascade and county firefighters.
That's just the opening detail of thousands that could take months to unravel, but Maketa already has identified a few takeaways.
First, regarding technology: Not only did the reverse 911 notification system fail to issue thousands of calls — he didn't get one at his home, which was in the evacuation zone — but infrared images failed to accurately reflect the fire's boundaries.
"I could walk out and see [the fire], and say, 'That infrared isn't right,'" Maketa says.
When he told Incident Commander Rich Harvey, he learned the aircraft take images at an angle, not from the top down, meaning fire climbing a ridge might not be visible in the infrared picture. Those images also might not show cooler spots that are still hot enough to make a run, Maketa says.
So while technology is helpful, Maketa says, it has to be coupled with other sources, such as ground forces. As for 911 calls, residents should be told not to rely on a call, because power outages and overloads can sabotage the system, he says.
Second, training is crucial. During big multi-agency events, each individual must understand their role and integrate into the unified command structure. Not all did so this time around, he says.
"You have to practice it," Maketa adds. "If you don't do that, there's a tendency to say, 'They're in charge. I'll wait till they tell me what to do.' Under a unified command, you don't wait. You're a part of it, and you become a part of that structure. To actually get in and understand your role as representing an agency, you have to practice it and be involved in it."
In an example of how things should work, Maketa says he told Harvey he worried sparks would jump U.S. Highway 24, and suggested firefighters be assigned to mitigate south of the highway and look out for errant embers.
Later that day, Maketa says, he saw firefighters lining the highway's south side.
Third, residents need to be given more information.
After Ute Pass towns were evacuated June 23, Maketa and others were pressed to re-open the pass. They refused, and residents lashed out verbally. "There was incredible pressure," he says. Maketa held meetings with homeowners to assure them his staff had access to the evacuated areas, checked them periodically, and that they had not burned or been burglarized. A few residents were escorted to check their homes and obtain critical paperwork or other items, he says.
"Everyone said, 'Thank you so much,'" Maketa says. "[But] we could have communicated better. We could have been aggressive in letting people know their homes were OK."
Other agencies opt out
Earlier this year, the state, at Gov. John Hickenlooper 's behest, convened an independent team to study the Lower North Fork prescribed burn. Set on March 22 to clear out forest fuels, the fire ran to more than 4,000 acres after high winds drove embers over the control line. The fire destroyed 23 homes and killed three people southwest of Denver in Jefferson County.
But Hickenlooper's office said Monday it is still deciding what steps, if any, it will take to study the Waldo Canyon Fire. And the Colorado State Forest Service won't do a review, according to agency representative GayLene Rossiter.
The Type 1 firefighting team won't do a study either, says Randy Eardley with the National Interagency Fire Center. The team conducted a briefing before handing off the fire to a lower-level team last month, he says, but no report was generated.
Steve Segin, a spokesman at the Rocky Mountain Air Coordination Center in Denver, says the U.S. Forest Service has no plan to investigate, and won't unless asked. That can happen, as it did for the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010, which destroyed 168 homes.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall sought that study, and plans to meet with Forest Service and military officials on Aug. 9 at Peterson Air Force Base to discuss the total federal response to the Waldo Canyon Fire, Udall aide Mike Saccone says in an e-mail.
In addition, Udall has arranged for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to conduct a hearing at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to discuss forest health and Western wildfires.