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Can't spark their interest on a Waldo review 

Despite money and time offered by local agencies, Forest Service isn't biting

Fourteen months after the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs, local authorities still want to explore how agencies worked together to battle the fire. El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs have opened their wallets, and the state is searching for funds.

Trouble is, the U.S. Forest Service apparently has no appetite for such an initiative.

"We feel the best us[e] of time, energy and effort is in the restoration of the Waldo Canyon burn scar," says Barb Timock, public affairs officer with the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, in an email.

It's not known if Timock's terse statement means the U.S. Forest Service won't cooperate in a study headed by another agency. But right now, there's nothing doing.

Multiple choice

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says he's long been willing to pitch in $100,000 to help fund a study and participate in it, despite having to cope with this year's Black Forest Fire and recent flooding from the Waldo and Black Forest burn scars.

"As I have stated before," Maketa says via email, "I think there are always lessons that can be learned from outside eyes for lack of a better term. Especially related to the response, and even extending into defense options for the interface areas and how to better manage the wildland urban interface areas."

Told of the Forest Service's posture, Maketa says in an email that tending to the burn scar is a priority, "but equally if not more important is the prevention of future Waldo Canyon fires."

Though Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach first was resistant to an outside review, now the city is "very interested" to get a comprehensive multi-agency study underway, says Bret Waters, the city's director of the Office of Emergency Management, via email. Not only has the city alloted $100,000 for such a thing, it's made "numerous inquiries" of the Forest Service about a multi-agency examination of what went right and wrong.

"We have been actively trying to participate in a multi-agency review," Waters reports. "The Waldo Canyon Fire began on USFS land and the vast majority of the fire burned on federal land. The City has reached out to the USFS on several occasions regarding joining an existing multi-agency review and has offered to participate."

Waters further notes the Forest Service initiated a review of the Lower North Fork Fire, sparked by a controlled burn in March 2012. Because the state helped fund it, the state helped define its scope, he says. That's important, because what gets covered by a study is tantamount to what lessons can be revealed.

Kevin Klein, director of the state Department of Public Safety's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says his division supports the effort to launch a study and is "examining potential sources of funding for state support." But he acknowledges the Forest Service must cut $600 million from other activities to keep up with fire suppression expenses. Hence, he adds, "It is unclear when they will have funding to do the AAR."

Lots to learn

As noted in Maketa's April 18 After Action Report, Waldo, which began June 23, 2012, and was contained 17 days later, taught his department that firefighters need fire breaks for access to rugged wildlands, and that people working the fire caused confusion by not communicating resource needs through Incident Command. In addition, multiple emergency operations centers proved difficult to manage and staff, leading Maketa to recommend all agencies cooperate in one center.

The city's April 3 After Action Report, which documented breakdowns in communications, planning, operational coordination, logistics, emergency public safety and emergency public information, failed to address many issues the Independent reported on late last year ("Misfire," cover story, Dec. 12, 2012). Among those: the city's deployment of only four firefighting vehicles on the Springs' western border north of 31st Street when the fire swept into the city; a late-drafted evacuation plan leading to chaos; the city failing to seek outside help until after flames entered the city; and firefighters hampered by a staging area that had only "pens and pads of paper" for supplies, in the words of one firefighter, when the blaze crossed city limits.

But neither of those reviews vetted how local officials interacted with the numerous other agencies on the fire, most notably the state and the Forest Service.

Waters points out that the Forest Service deemed the fire of national significance and ordered an in-depth ecological study of it and the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, at the behest of Colorado's U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. That study is to cover issues such as the impact of beetle-kill in trees; effectiveness of fuels treatment; how burned areas are redeveloped; and more.

A portion of that study centers on fire science ("Waldo Canyon Fire spreads in the scientific community," News, March 6), including how to better protect structures from burning. The city is coordinating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on its research of fire behavior in Mountain Shadows. That study will be completed next summer, Waters says.

zubeck@csindy.com

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