Great article, Pam. It's always educational to review the aftermath of such a tragedy to dig up all the lessons learned. After reading some of the posts here, I felt a strong urge to chime in. My intention is to help readers understand what we firefighters deal with in our careers and on the fireline. As one of those ground-pounding crewmembers of a federal Forest Service engine responding to the fire, allow me to add a few points to the discussion:
1) When resources arrive and check-in, it takes time to determine where they will be most effective. Any crew MUST be initally briefed, tie in with fireline supervisor for assignment, then make their way to destination. At times, resources will be held back if the exposure is deemed to high a risk to firefighters. This is a potential reason why incoming resources were held at staging areas or were left unassigned. Occasionally, resources are staged for 'pooling', meaning they are awaiting other resources to combine with to become strike teams/task forces. So if resources don't check-in or 'self-deploy' to the fireline, how is anyone to know the who/what/where/when's about them? That can quickly become a problem, not a solution. Overall, this means that immediately sending resources into a rapid-rate fire is reckless, illogical, and plain stupid.
2) The day after blow-up, we patrolled the upper Mountain Shadows area. Later, we tied in with several CSFD captains/chiefs, who were having a discussion about the CS Fire Marshal allegedly signing a ton of housing code 'waivers', which allowed developers to construct homes and roads that were too close together, had limited water sources and capacities, and had over-developed landscaping (fuel build-ups) directly adjacent to structures. This severely limits ANY fire suppression operations, as no firefighter would be willing to place themselves in that level of risk. However, we did see several city engines doing their best (and gambling with their lives) to enter these subdivisions. I admire their bravery but would emphasize the safety risks of such tactics.
3) Firefighting aircraft can be useful in the wildland urban-interface (WUI), however their effectiveness is limited in poor weather. Reduced visibility, highly erratic winds, power lines, and other numerous hazards will cease their operations quickly. Helicopters are subject to some of the same limitations, not all, but also have their own set of drawbacks. Any fire manager worth his salt knows you can NEVER rely on aircraft to put a fire out; the guys on the ground take care of that. Aircraft's main purpose is to slow a fire to buy time, or pre-treat areas in the hopes the fire may snuff itself out. It should also be noted that the amount of exclusive-use contracts for federal air tankers has dwindled exponentially over the last decade. As I recall, we had only 9 tankers on EUC's this year nationwide.
4) Communications are a fundamental block of any fire operation. Generally speaking, it is considered unacceptable for ANY fire resource to enter the scene without having the designated command and tactical channels in use. Crews that entered the scene without checking-in or not communicating across incident channels should be reprimanded, at minimum. This is how people get hurt or killed on fires. The term 'accountability' gets tossed around a lot, however, it seems to lose its meaning when things get hectic. The trick is, this is the MOST IMPORTANT time to have accountability measures in place. Having a solid, pre-planned interagency communication strategy in place solves the communication issue and provides the BEST tool for accounting of resources.
5) Fatigue is the ever-present enemy of the firefighter. Remember that we are people, too, just like anyone else. We enjoy good days and tough out the bad, and we have our own personal stressors (family, finances, etc). This takes its toll, then add on top the work-related stress of fighting fire and supervising our subordinate firefighters in such a dynamically dangerous environment. It is the responsibility of ALL fire personnel, from the rookie up through the chief, to monitor fatigue levels and adhere to the 2:1 work-rest guideline (1 hour rest for every 2 hours worked). Not all fire modules are held to this standard, which is why it is so important for us to look out for our brothers and sisters in the red. Under federal policy, fire management may only exempt the work-rest guideline for 2 reasons: immediate life threats to public or fire personnel, and fireline assignment is within reasonable time to completion.
I will not touch on the 'highlight reel' of this fire (i.e. President Obama's appearance, Denver Bronco's surprise appearance in camp, other visits by popular folks, etc), simply because I believe that they only showed up because of the media whirlwind surrounding the fire. Positive or negative, its all a matter of perception. I will note that their presence required personnel to hold fireline operations for some time. I will also not touch on the evacuation plans/implementation and lack of public contacts concerning voluntary/mandatory evacs, as this is well above my pay grade and, unless well practiced, typically becomes a massive Charlie-Foxtrot (look that one up). My only observation is this: the evacuation process MUST be overseen as an incident-within-incident (meaning it requires its own command staff and ops personnel). With planning and practice in place, this should allow an evacuation to take place seamlessly within a growing all-risk incident. Lastly, the leadership dilemma as reported is simply disappointing. As leaders, we've come a long ways in the fire community; lack of leadership or command presence nowadays can only be attributed to poor training or a deficiency in hiring standards. Nuff said.
Finally, I would like to commend the efforts of the CSFD, CSPD, and the community of Colorado Springs. I have personally never seen a fire of this magnitude or complexity; I doubt many in the fire community ever have or ever will again (hopefully). I now have a well-developed set of 'slides' for the now loosely-termed Fuel Model 15: Structures. This was a monumental effort by many; as tragic as the events that occurred, the crucial lesson is for us to walk away with more 'tools in the box'; meaning, learn where things didn't work or went bad and fix those issues so we'll be prepared for the next event. The local community was incredibly supportive of the firefighting effort; I love showing a video I took of the crowd that cheered us every morning and night at the entrance to the middle school camp. I don't know how many times I had to turn down free meals, free room & board, and free beer (trust me, its hard to resist that last one!). The hospitality and generosity shown by everyone in the Colorado Springs area was incredibly gracious and quite a surprise. I was so impressed with the people and the beauty of the area, I'm now looking into moving that direction.
I know this was a long post, yet I feel it is totally warranted. At the minimum, I hope this addresses and answers some lingering questions. In the end, this fire will never be forgotten. So lets make the most of its memory by bettering ourselves for the next potential disaster (by that I mean everyone: fire departments, local cooperators, IMT's, individual crewmembers, the general public, etc) and developing effective plans. Nothing can prepare us more for the future than by PLANNING for it! Then PRACTICE acting out your plan! BE PREPARED AS WE MOVE FORWARD IN A PERPETUALLY UNCERTAIN FUTURE!
- D.M. (NorCalFF)
PS I agree a third-party investigation should be mandated. While the justification for an 'internal review' is understandable, I feel it is unacceptable and should be made illegal for any department to self-investigate a fatality incident. The Feds did away with this decades ago; look it up to see the potential consequences. Any bashing of
* This post is my personal viewpoint only, based on professional experience. In no way does it reflect the views of any agency or department, explicitly stated or otherwise.
** Should anyone have questions/comments on my post, I will leave my email with Pam.
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