City officials took nine months to study how local government tackled the Waldo Canyon Fire before they unveiled the city's Final After Action Report last week. And no wonder: It was the city's worst-ever disaster and claimed two lives, destroyed 347 homes (as opposed to the 345 first reported) and charred more than 1,500 acres within the city limits. Many homeowners are still struggling to patch their lives back together.
But the next fire season is at our doorstep, underscoring the importance of knowing what went right and wrong last summer. Which is why it's surprising that so many questions that have lingered go unanswered in the city's final report. They include:
• why upper Mountain Shadows, Peregrine and parts of Rockrimmon weren't evacuated sooner, and why the four people empowered to call for an evacuation were all at a news conference even as flames poured into the subdivisions behind them.
• why, despite a morning forecast that likened weather conditions to those of the Hayman Fire's one-day, 60,000-acre run in 2002, the city had only four firefighting vehicles in subdivisions on the city's northwest side on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 26;
• why officials chose not to contact mutual aid departments until fire was burning inside the city;
• and why officials neglected to identify a workable staging area and have it equipped to house firefighters and cops for a long campaign until the fire had burned for four days and was consuming homes.
Nor does the 111-page report assign responsibility for the many failures the report does document, including breakdowns in communications, planning, operational coordination, logistics, emergency public safety and emergency public information.
Bach himself hasn't spoken of assigning responsibility either, at least publicly. When he stood before reporters on April 3 to discuss the report, released 2.5 hours earlier that day, and spoke for nine minutes without taking questions, the three lessons learned he chose to highlight were that:
• mitigation is critical;
• people shouldn't wait on traffic signals during a mass evacuation;
• and texting, rather than making calls on cell phones, saves bandwidth and might prevent a phone system crash like the one that happened this time, when 26,000 people fled their burning neighborhoods.
About that evacuation
As comparatively minor as they seem to be, it's instructive that two of Bach's points relate to the June 26 evacuation. While the AAR doesn't answer many questions related to the evacuation, it does raise new questions about it.
On Saturday, the AAR reports, 15 police officers had gone door-to-door and used public-address systems to evacuate southern Mountain Shadows, which included 840 homes and 1,875 people. At one officer for every 56 buildings, it took eight hours.
Yet the report says that on Monday, the city planned for evacuation of Mountain Shadows, Peregrine and Oak Valley with 40 police officers for 2,565 buildings and 7,100 residents. That's one officer for every 64 buildings, and this time, city leadership allotted four hours.
Of course, the city wound up with nothing close to four hours to evacuate, anyway. The "trigger points" of lower Mountain Shadows and the eastern ridge of Queens Canyon wound up being way too close to homes, thanks to environmental factors like high winds and a pyrocumulus cloud that had been building over the city most of the day.
The report doesn't explore whether city workers had adequate wildland fire training to determine when an evacuation should occur, so it's unclear how much the city understood about the pace and location of the fire's movement. Capt. Steve Riker, according to the report, was the one to alert his bosses that a trigger point for evacuations had been hit. Riker was in charge of the four fire apparatus assigned to the city's northwest side that day, but as the Independent has reported, he has no wildland certification.
Once Bach announced the evacuation at 4:21 p.m. that Tuesday, Colorado Springs Police Department personnel by all accounts performed heroically in telling residents to leave the area. The AAR indicates that the PD had been prepared all day for such an event, saying sworn personnel — including those usually in plain clothes — were "required to wear uniforms to work" on Tuesday so they'd be ready to carry out evacuations.
But one officer, speaking with the Independent on condition of anonymity, disputes that, saying he and others were sent home at 10 or 10:30 a.m. that day to get into uniform. Around 4 p.m., incredibly, they were told they could go home. "Then they said, 'No, come back and go to Mountain Shadows,'" the officer says.
Bottom line: The AAR never says the evacuation call came too late. But Riker, in the April 3 press conference, actually did.
"Throughout the day as I was doing my patrols, I would run into numerous people," he said. "They all asked me the same question: 'Do you think we should leave?' And I told every one of them the same thing: 'You should have left yesterday.'"
Certainly, the AAR (posted at springsgov.com) does cover numerous problems. A few it mentions:
• From the outset, the report says, it became clear that equipment in the Emergency Operations Center was "outdated and slow," a problem that would later lead to "a degradation/delay of service." (It's since received upgrades; see "It wasn't all bad ...")
• The Police Department's mobile command post was moved six times during the fire due to issues related to space, connectivity and proximity to other command operations, resulting in "a significant loss of time for personnel organizing command and control" of law enforcement operations.
• Food, water, medical support and other logistical needs weren't adequate and available to all personnel, and duty rotations weren't well-planned, leading firefighters to go without food and water for long stretches, and causing "many personnel to work multiple consecutive 24-hour shifts, often with little, if any, rest."
• Leadership failed to assign an "accountability officer," who would monitor where each and every firefighter and apparatus are located for safety and deployment purposes.
But for a report designed to "[focus] on the responses of all City departments and divisions that supported the City's response," there seems to be remarkably little related to the city's approach to preparing for, and then fighting, the fire itself.
The Independent asked the city earlier this week why the problems listed at the beginning of this story — from the time of the evacuation to the failure to establish a workable staging area — are not addressed. In response, Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith says the AAR is an "overarching" assessment of the city's response and that issues specific to certain departments are being addressed internally. For example, he says, fire officials will address the staging-area questions, while police are studying those related to evacuation.
The report also neglects to explore how the city interacted with other agencies. But that's by design, Office of Emergency Management Director Bret Waters said last week: "We think it's valuable to encourage a larger study to look at those interactions, and we'd be happy to participate."
Bach, in fact, said he plans to ask City Council to appropriate $100,000 to join the multi-agency study instigated by Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet in October. "We fully support that and we're going to participate in that," he said at the April 3 news conference. Chief of Staff Laura Neumann later added, "We are prepared to ask for as much as it will cost."
Here's the thing: Though Bach termed the senators' study a "scientific and comprehensive review," it apparently leans more "scientific" than "comprehensive."
In their letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Udall and Bennet sought a study of the ecological aspects of wildland fires in Colorado (not just Waldo), such as how bark beetle infestations and previous controlled burns influence the spread of fire, and rehabilitation issues. They did not request any exploration of inter-agency operational aspects.
Asked for more detail on what they expect from this study, city officials said in a statement, "Please contact U.S. Forest Service or Senator Bennet/Udall. We are only one of many agencies that will be involved."
So we asked Udall spokesman Mike Saccone: Will the study actually look at multi-agency operational issues?
"No," Saccone writes via e-mail. "The review is primarily scientific."
Could there be another review that the Forest Service (which operates under the Agriculture Department) is undertaking, which does handle those issues?
"There is no additional USFS study underway, nor are we aware of any other new reviews."
Bennet's office also tells the Indy that the Agriculture study "is more targeted to scientific issues."
Finally, we asked the governor's office if there's another study underway. Says spokesman Eric Brown via e-mail, "I am also not aware of any other reviews."
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