Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cause unknown of Black Forest Fire, sheriff says

Posted By on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 at 12:37 PM

click to enlarge News media came out of the woodwork for the sheriff's Black Forest Fire news conference. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • News media came out of the woodwork for the sheriff's Black Forest Fire news conference.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa
, fending off questions about his alleged sexual relations with subordinates, unveiled his department's after-action report on the Black Forest Fire of a year ago today, saying, "I don't know that we will ever have a concrete source of ignition."

Maketa also said an investigation commissioned by the Board of County Commissioners of sexual harassment and discrimination claims has no impact on his department's ability to serve the public.

"There are 786 employees in this office," he said. "Every day every one of them is coming to work and doing their job. The distractions I'm responsible for have not in any way impacted their responsibilities and duties."
click to enlarge The after action review fills many volumes. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The after action review fills many volumes.
But Maketa for the most part turned back reporters' demands that he address the county investigation and stuck to the script of his 127-page report on the Black Forest Fire, which began June 11, 2013, and destroyed 489 homes and killed two people.

He said the fire cost $9.8 million to fight, and used 133,510 gallons of retardant and 866,130 gallons of water.

He emphasized that the fire was the first in which federal officials lifted a restraint that prevents fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft from using the same air space. He also praised the military's response, which came within hours of the fire's start, compared to days during the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire. In fact, Maketa heralded the cooperation of all area agencies, volunteers and residents in helping fight the fire, evacuate residents and share information.

The fire was the "perfect storm" of drought conditions, winds and houses tucked among the branches of a forest, he said.

Among strengths demonstrated during the fire was officials feeding the public with essential real-time information using social media and other methods. "We began doing assessments immediately of those homes knowing there would be a potential for error," he said. At night, he added, personnel would drive through the burn area trying to determine which homes were lost and which were still standing, often making judgments without street signs and seeing only slabs where homes once stood.

Familiarity with the federal Type 1 firefighting team was another strength, Maketa said, because Incident Commander Rich Harvey had also been in charge of the Waldo fire, "and that made for a seamless transition."

Challenges included:

No statewide 800 megahertz radio system, meaning that visiting firefighting units could not communicate directly with the local responders. Maketa says he's since acquired 75 radios that can be used for future inter-agency incidents. He's also acquired protective clothing and breathing apparatus for deputies who had to do without that protection during the Black Forest Fire.

Sheriff's Office policies aren't flexible enough to react to various types of incident command. The Black Forest Fire was initially commanded by the Black Forest Fire/Rescue Department, but it wasn't clear who was in charge, the report says, because there was no radio traffic by an incident commander directing the response. Command eventually passed from that department to the state, to the county's fire marshal to the federal Type 1 team. Maketa said his department is working on policies that will make the early stages of a fire response smoother, although he noted all major events begin with chaos.

More in-depth briefings should have been done at the end of each shift so that oncoming crews were more schooled in what had been done, and what needed to be done.

Reconnaissance from above would have helped, because it was difficult to get a read from the ground of the direction the fire was moving. 

Search and Rescue and community volunteers could have been more effectively utilized.
click to enlarge In his first news conference since three commanders accused him of having affairs with his employees, Maketa faced reporters today in a news briefing about the Black Forest Fire. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • In his first news conference since three commanders accused him of having affairs with his employees, Maketa faced reporters today in a news briefing about the Black Forest Fire.
Maketa says to address these issues, he has acquired protective equipment for deputies, will train volunteers to be part of a response team, has updated the sheriff's emergency plans, and plans to acquire new software to track and document an unfolding event, among other things. He also has hired part-time firefighters who will mitigate wildland urban interface areas when not fighting a fire this summer.

As for what caused the fire, Maketa says his department has finished its investigation and will forward its findings to the District Attorney's Office. He says his department, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives agency all agree on the area of ignition.

But he declined to say what his investigators determined caused the fire.

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