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Teachable moment 

A U.S. Forest Service account of its actions during the Waldo Canyon Fire points out that fires like these have become the norm, not an aberration.

"The Waldo Fire was a perfect example of the type of wildland urban interface fires that have been consistently occurring for the past 10 years and will be occurring for the foreseeable future," the report says. "These wildland fires cross many jurisdictional and political boundaries."

It's with that reality in mind that Scott Hente has decided the city's internal after-action review of the catastrophe, which claimed two lives and 345 homes on June 26, isn't enough. While that report, due in March, is "a good first step," the City Council president says leaders "need to consider all the aspects and all those involved in fighting it so if this happens again, we have the ability to respond from a multi-jurisdictional aspect."

Hente joins El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in calling for an unbiased, third-party review. Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin and Councilor Lisa Czelatdko now also say they support one.

"I think we will miss an opportunity to address future community tragedies without a third party helping us to [assess] how the fire was handled," Martin says via e-mail. "We are still at risk for another fire and we owe it to the citizens to learn from the Waldo Canyon Fire and be even better prepared next time."

Indeed, in addition to city-level problems the Independent cited last month ("Misfire," cover story, Dec. 12), the Forest Service report mentions other Waldo issues, to include:

• "too many agencies trying to accomplish the same things [in communications] without working with each other";

• "getting orders through [the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise] in a timely fashion";

• and agencies providing resources "not under the command of the [Incident Management Team]."

It also notes that at one point, the Type 1 leadership team had to confer with three different military branches before reaching an agreement that enabled "military aircraft [to] contribute to the suppression effort."

Mayor Steve Bach has been cool toward a third-party review; as recently as Dec. 17, he said he was "satisfied" with the city's internal process. But last week, he told FOX 21 News that he'll consider an outside review if the city's report doesn't answer the "many questions that we have asked."

In that interview, Bach also expressed concern for the first time publicly about the chaotic, last-minute evacuation of Mountain Shadows. "I have a question on why we evacuated the balance of Mountain Shadows as late as we did," he said. "I've gotten all kinds of responses from the federal Incident Commander, from the Forest Service and from our own city officials on that. But it still bothers me."

Like Bach, the Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters Local 5 wants to see the city's report before backing an external review. But president Jeremy Kroto says via e-mail the group is "committed to turning over every stone and shedding light on all aspects of the incident." If the city's report fails to properly address firefighter concerns, Kroto says, "We'll take the necessary steps to ensure that our collective voice as professional fire fighters is heard."

Maketa, who plans to release his own report this month, calls a third-party review "invaluable" for local agencies and the West. He's ready to pitch in $100,000 toward the review, which national experts say might cost up to $250,000.

Given the number of agencies involved, Hente and Martin suggest a grant could help fund the review.

zubeck@csindy.com

  • Councilors start backing a third-party Waldo review.

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