Colorado Springs for years has had agreements with surrounding fire departments that allow the city to call on them when needed.
But many of those resources sat idle for days leading up to Tuesday, June 26, when the Waldo Canyon Fire blasted into Mountain Shadows to claim 345 homes and two lives.
Though Mayor Steve Bach said two days before, "This is obviously something beyond the resources of any one agency," commanders waited until fire poured over ridges onto homes on Tuesday before seeking help from various neighboring departments.
Perhaps those outsiders could've helped clear flammable material from houses in harm's way, or covered Colorado Springs Fire Department stations so more local personnel could head west. But the city isn't making itself available to explain. Nor is it answering myriad other questions, such as:
Why weren't more city resources fighting the fire in its early days, or at least mitigating nearby properties?
Why were other resources turned away, back when the fire was relatively small?
Why did the city not evacuate north Mountain Shadows and Peregrine residents sooner ("Inside the nightmare," July 4) — or, as the Denver Post reported Friday, as soon as a predetermined "trigger point" was hit?
In short, was the city prepared for a fire that officials have long predicted was inevitable?
They're legitimate questions in light of the loss of property and two lives. It's not unreasonable to think Barbara and William Everett would have survived if given more time to escape their Mountain Shadows home that day.
Bach declined an interview request last week, as did Fire Chief Rich Brown, Deputy Chief Steve Dubay and Emergency Management director Bret Waters. But Bach asserted in a press release Friday "his strong belief that, based on all current information available, the Colorado Springs Fire and Police departments did everything humanly possible, as soon as possible, to aid and assist all of our citizens."
No one doubts that firefighters performed spectacularly in Mountain Shadows, confining the fire to one subdivision. But fire operations reports and other records suggest fire commanders knew they had a beast at the door, and said so — often — well before the homes burned.
U.S. Forest Service and El Paso County Sheriff's Office records obtained by the Independent describe an aggressive fire that moved steadily to the north, northwest and northeast. On its first day, Saturday, June 23, operational plans written by a Type 3 Incident Command team of county and federal forestry officials cited "extreme fire behavior" and identified Mountain Shadows as an area of concern.
On Sunday, Incident Command officials noted they hoped on Monday to keep the fire "west of I-25" and identified the entire western boundary of Colorado Springs from U.S. 24 at 31st Street north to the Air Force Academy as part of their "control operations."
By early Monday, the day federal officials took over with a Type 1 team, the fire had grown to 3,600 acres. The Haines Index — a measure of rapid forest-fire growth potential — stood at 6, the highest possible rating, as it would the next day.
The city, according to a report written Saturday night, had 25 apparatus, including three from Utilities, assigned to the fire Sunday. Sunday night's report showed 24 total city apparatus assigned for Monday.
In a document time-stamped 6:30 p.m. Monday, Incident Command officials wrote, "Potential for extreme fire behavior with rapid rates of spread and high resistance to control." It listed Mountain Shadows and the Air Force Academy as among the "values at risk" for the coming 24-hour period.
The nightly Incident Command report, outlining operations for Tuesday, was equally foreboding: "SW winds will test the line," it said, referring to the area from Cedar Heights to the Black Canyon quarry south of there.
The Incident Command team provides intelligence on fire behavior, trajectory, weather predictions and the like, and serves as a coordination point for local jurisdictions. But it doesn't tell local jurisdictions what to do: how many trucks to deploy, where to deploy them, etc. In city limits, those decisions are left to the city.
According to the same Monday night report, the city cut back its apparatus to 18, including Utilities crews, for Tuesday. Twelve were assigned to the Cedar Heights area.
With city officials not granting interviews, they can't contextualize the reduction, or explain why those Incident Command numbers appear to differ dramatically from the city's own account of how it deployed its resources.
In Fire Department deployment records obtained by the Independent under the Colorado Open Records Act, the city says it had 32 of its 73 fire apparatus assigned to the fire as early as Saturday afternoon. The number would jump to 43 as of 10:52 a.m. Tuesday — when the city told Cedar Heights and South Mountain Shadows evacuees they could briefly return. The return was cancelled a short time later.
At 1:40 p.m., when the city issued a pre-evacuation notice to north Mountain Shadows and Peregrine, it had cut its assigned units to 40. By 4:30, as fire poured into the city and Bach issued an impromptu evacuation notice during a news briefing, the number was 37. It was bumped back to 43 at 5:15.
But many of those assigned units remained elsewhere, according to GPS coordinates of the apparatus provided by the city. Maps made using the coordinates of the apparatus assigned to the fire at approximately 5:15 p.m. reveal that 12 were east of the interstate, and four more were nowhere near the fire. The same is true of the preceding days.
Calling for backup
In the Denver Post's July 20 story, federal Type 1 team Incident Commander Rich Harvey said Queens Canyon quickly was identified as a "trigger point" for evacuation.
"If the fire becomes established in there, there is no good containment, no good place for making a stand between Rampart Range Road and Colorado Springs," Harvey told the Post, adding, "There are no roads, no trails, no natural barriers. That was obvious to us."
Radio recordings note that at 2:27 p.m., Tuesday, June 26, a firefighter reported flames had caught in Queens Canyon. At 2:40, the same firefighter said there was fire "getting down into the bottom of the canyon."
Harvey said he didn't know why the evacuation order wasn't announced at that point. No one locally has spoken to that issue yet.
On July 16, before city officials stopped talking, Fire Chief Brown stressed to the Independent that evacuations were a city call: "It's our jurisdiction," he said. But he didn't say who actually made the decision.
Brown also said Dubay was his main link to Harvey's Incident Command team: "Everything that had to do with the city, [Dubay] would call me and say, 'Here's what we're thinking about this, we need resources for this or that.'"
El Paso County Emergency Operations Manager Jim Reid spent 18 hours a day in the command post agency representative room. He says Dubay was at the post, but spent little time in the room.
Monday morning, Reid says, the fire was clearly moving toward the city. "They [Type 1 Incident Command team] focused on Queens Canyon and Cedar Heights pretty strongly," Reid says in an interview. "Then they pounded Queens Canyon with slurry. That would have been a clue that [the city boundary] was an issue, but I can't speak to what [city officials] thought or knew. I would say Monday would be the time we saw evidence it would cross into the city.
"Not having an agency rep in the room, we didn't know what the city was doing. I thought they had evacuated on Monday. I remember where Bach came out and said, 'You gotta get out.' I thought they were already out."
When the flames blew in, the city sought help within a 70-mile radius. But those resources had been available all along under mutual aid agreements among counties and municipalities.
Among the first to get a call on Tuesday, at about 4 p.m., was Falcon Fire Protection District Chief Trent Harwig, who says a city battalion chief asked for "everything you got."
Falcon sent two engines and seven people: "They wanted us to send more, but we couldn't," he says.
They stayed on the fire until July 1, putting in 694 man hours. "The fact is, we're not going to not respond," Harwig says. "I mean, if the city is burning up, we're gonna go."
Same goes for the Fountain Fire Department, which got a call at 5:37 p.m. and sent one engine, which arrived at the Garden of the Gods Road staging area at 5:53, Fire Chief Darin Anstine says via e-mail.
Pueblo County got a call at 6 p.m. asking for "as many engines as we could send," says Pueblo County Sheriff public information officer Lisa Shorter. Nine engines and a water tanker truck arrived in Colorado Springs at 11:04 p.m., she says.
Noel Perran, fire chief of the Broadmoor Fire Protection District, had been monitoring the fire with help from a 24/7 sentry posted in The Broadmoor hotel's tower.
"I saw the pyrocumulus cloud at 4:53 p.m. [Tuesday]," Perran says. "I became very concerned and took a photo of it. I was concerned about what was going on with the top of crowns and it running down into Mountain Shadows."
At about 7 p.m., he called Springs Fire, offering help. "Five minutes later, they accepted," he says. A brush truck and foam truck arrived in Mountain Shadows at 8:50, Perran says.
Denver firefighters also came, but Denver officials didn't return calls for this story.
Jerry Schnabel wanted to help, too. He's president of Transit Mix, whose quarry near Cedar Heights was evacuated on Saturday, June 23, by Forest Service workers. The next day, Schnabel returned to the quarry to make sure the equipment — a dozer, two loaders, a grader, water truck and an excavator — was fueled and had keys. He then visited a fire post.
"I told them, 'If you want this equipment, I'll have drivers here in 20 minutes,'" he says. At that time, the fire was one canyon and two ridges from his property — a 1,000-yard distance his drivers could traverse in 15 minutes.
"They run that equipment every day," he says. "They know that terrain. I think they could have made fire breaks better than anyone."
Schnabel says his employer at the time of the Galena Fire in 1988 in South Dakota that burned 16,788 acres sent four dozers that helped create a fire break.
This time, he says, "[Forestry officials] said we weren't qualified and didn't have 40 hours of [firefighting] training."
While the Forest Service must follow certain rules when it comes to contracting firefighting equipment, the city isn't under the same restrictions; it could put dozers to work in the city.
One of Schnabel's vice presidents, Mac Shafer, e-mailed Bach's office on Sunday with the same offer. Shafer says he got a phone call Monday from a man at the mayor's office. "He said, 'We're evaluating.' If they needed something, they would be in touch," he says. "I never heard from them again."
Later that day, Schnabel went to a news briefing and again offered to use his equipment to work a fire break atop the quarry. He says he received "a very official 'Thank you, but we don't need your help.'"
Transit Mix's chairman had approved use of the equipment, accepting full liability, Schnabel says. "It wasn't about liability," he adds, "it's about, we've got a problem here and we're willing to help." He adds that fire personnel could have joined his men in the vehicles' cabs to act as advisers, if officials desired.
After four rejections, Schnabel assumed commanders had the fire in hand. "These guys are the professionals," he says. "Our job is to stay out of their way."
The next day, Schnabel says, he saw police screaming evacuation orders in his Mountain Shadows neighborhood. He lost his home.
"Had they attacked the fire Saturday or Sunday [with his equipment], I think it would have been different," he says, noting that he knows of others who also offered equipment and were turned down. "By Tuesday morning, it was all over. They had resources they didn't use."
Knowing the score
Certain city folks are clearly well-equipped to oversee a wildland fire. Dubay has 580 hours of wildland fire training. Battalion Chief Jim Schanel, who led the Mountain Shadows battle, has 500 hours and has fought wildland fires nationwide.
But it's a different story for Fire Chief Brown and Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith, the latter of whom appeared at press briefings and called the Mountain Shadows evacuation "spot on."
Of Brown's 1,269 documented training hours since 1993, 45.5, or 3.6 percent, have been labeled wildland fire training. Smith has logged 22.5 hours of such training, or 1.2 percent of his total.
As for emergency exercises, Waters, the Emergency Management director, has been involved in, or led, numerous drills. The city held or participated in 13 drills in 2011, five of which dealt with wildland fire. Three of the exercises were wildfire evacuation drills — in Rockrimmon and Broadmoor Bluffs, and also in Mountain Shadows, where 40 of 54 households included took part.
This year, the city has held four emergency exercises, none involving wildland fire specifically. And as for a full-scale city evacuation plan, officials have been unable to produce one since an Independent request made July 6.
Since taking office in June 2011, Bach has participated in one exercise, called the "Mayor's Training — Emergency Management," on Oct. 17, 2011. The other participants were Brown, Waters, Police Chief Pete Carey and Bach's director of economic vitality and former fire chief Steve Cox, city records show. Records don't state whether the training involved a wildland fire scenario.
"It's very important for [elected officials] to understand their role in providing support to the technical staff and also be able to effectively manage the situation," El Paso County Administrator Jeff Greene says. "When you go through training, you play the role of elected official, of an Incident Commander, how you deal with media, how you make recommendations on allocation of resources. It's a very detailed process.
"Commissioner [Amy] Lathen was just commenting yesterday, it really influenced her role in this Waldo Canyon event." Four of five county commissioners have attended FEMA's Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md., he says.
For Bach's communications director Cindy Aubrey, who attended the Broadmoor Bluffs training in October 2011, the training didn't initially seem pertinent to her job. "I thought, 'I'm never going to use it,'" she said last week.
Perhaps it's all fodder for the "after-action review" planned for days ahead.
"We want to learn all we can from an event like this," Bach said in the statement issued Friday. "Our dedicated first responders performed superbly. We will continue to look at improving where necessary and building on our strengths."
The evac crew
Just as Incident Command can't tell local fire departments what to do, it can't order evacuations within local jurisdictions. Tim Johnson, public information officer with the federal incident management team, has said that inside city limits, "ultimately, it's the mayor" who makes an evacuation call.
But under Colorado Springs city code, the fire chief can also order evacuations and is responsible for fire scenes. He or she is even given authority, with the mayor's approval or his own initiative if the mayor is not present, to order buildings "blown up ... for the purpose of checking the conflagration."
The fire chief also appoints the director of emergency management, who along with the police chief rounds out the quartet empowered by city code to order evacuations. The director of emergency management has responsibility for citywide emergency management activities, and is charged with requesting additional resources from mutual aid jurisdictions, according to code. The director also develops an emergency operations plan.
The city's most recent Emergency Operations Plan was adopted in 2007, after Emergency Management director Bret Waters stated in a memo to city management: "The EOP defines emergency roles, responsibilities and actions that are necessary for a coordinated and effective response."
— Pam Zubeck
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