Who's the boss? In Colorado Springs, the answer to that question is almost always conditional. It depends upon who has jurisdiction, who has statutory power, and who has to be consulted. Even if a dozen pols agree on a course of action, there's no assurance that anything will get done.
But during the dramatic arc of the Waldo Canyon Fire, jurisdictional questions became irrelevant. As soon as a national incident management team arrived, decision-making was informally vested in a single "unified command." This quasi-military organization seized control of northwest Colorado Springs, rapidly deployed assets from across the country, and enlisted more than 1,200 men and women to fight a hugely imposing opponent.
No elected body formally surrendered jurisdiction; no judge ratified the seizure. No voices protested the broad denial of civil rights when 32,000 people were barred from their homes, and no politicians took power from the outsiders.
Twice daily, the men and women in charge gave their briefings. Tuesday morning, hours before the fire jumped containment lines, raced up ridges and metamorphosed into a deadly firestorm, our bosses sang the virtues of unified command. This command and control system, merging local, regional and federal firefighting/public safety resources, evolved from the grim experience of the past few decades in the arid West.
Did it work? Was communication actually quick and effective between all the players, including the federal incident management team, city and El Paso County administrative staff and public safety departments, the U.S. Forest Service, the mayor's office and Colorado Springs Utilities? Is that why, though we lost nearly 350 homes to an uncontrollable firestorm, only two people perished? Or was the situation on the ground as confused and chaotic as it seemed to be from a distance?
Was incident commander Rich Harvey as tactically brilliant as Hannibal at Cannae, or Montgomery at El Alamein? Or was he, like so many generals, just lucky?
For a little context, consider the past. On Oct. 19, 1991, a grass fire broke out in the hills above Oakland, Calif. Firefighters arrived, extinguished the blaze and left. But they hadn't finished the job — next morning, the fire re-ignited. Driven by searing temperatures and winds gusting to 65 mph, fire swept through the desiccated trees, shrubs and grass along the wildland-urban interface to menace the upscale neighborhoods of Berkeley Hills.
Firefighting resources from the entire Bay Area deployed, to no avail. Blocked streets, equipment incompatibility, communication difficulties and power failures handicapped firefighters, as did the lack of a coherent strategy. Unchecked, the blaze grew into a firestorm, generating its own winds, hurling flaming embers before the fire front, igniting everything in its path. In all, 3,354 single-family homes were destroyed, as well as 437 apartment or condominium units. Twenty-five people died.
Three years later on July 7, 1994, 14 members of a Colorado wildland fire suppression team died in another firestorm, this one at Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs. A multi-agency accident investigation team ascribed the deaths to a lethal combination of weather (wind, low humidity, high temperature), overconfidence by incident managers, and lack of critical information to develop appropriate strategy.
The report noted: "Maximum rates of spread of 18 mph and flames as high as 200-300 feet made escape by firefighters extremely difficult."
Does that sound familiar? It should — that's what we saw on that terrible Tuesday as Mountain Shadows exploded into flame.
Harvey was surprised by the fire's twists and turns.
"I've never seen a fire do that," he said Wednesday morning. "You can usually predict a fire's direction, but this one made three major runs in three cardinal directions in a few hours."
It may be that the massive resources gave firefighters the tools they needed to save lives and minimize property damage. That's how things look today — but soon the second-guessing will begin. It's too early to draw many conclusions. We can expect the Forest Service and other agencies to commission an independent investigation, which should answer some questions.
Mayor Steve Bach, Rich Harvey, Sheriff Terry Maketa, Police Chief Pete Carey, Fire Chief Rich Brown, Forest Service supervisor Jerri Marr — good, lucky or both?
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