Monday, June 26, 2017

Coordinated evacuation amid Waldo fire? Not hardly

Posted By on Mon, Jun 26, 2017 at 11:09 AM

click to enlarge This is the image many residents saw in their rearview mirrors as they raced to safety from Mountain Shadows on June 26, 2012. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • This is the image many residents saw in their rearview mirrors as they raced to safety from Mountain Shadows on June 26, 2012.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Waldo Canyon Fire killing two people and destroying 347 homes in Colorado Springs.

On Sunday, a column by Mayor John Suthers appeared in the Gazette, noting the anniversary and the city's resiliency in recovering from the fire.

click to enlarge Mayor Suthers was Colorado's attorney general at the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Mayor Suthers was Colorado's attorney general at the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire.
One remark in his column, though, was blatantly inaccurate. Here's the paragraph, with the statement in question in bold type:
It was a catastrophic event that took a costly toll, but thanks to the brave and professional actions of our first responders, thousands of lives and properties were spared. A coordinated, multijurisdictional response evacuated 26,000 people in a matter of hours, while protecting homes in the fire's path and establishing fire lines that stopped it from expanding further into the city.

Then-Mayor Steve Bach failed to issue an evacuation order until flames were pouring into Mountain Shadows and thousands of people were fleeing for their lives.

Even Bach himself later called the impromptu evacuation a miracle, considering only two people were killed instead of dozens or hundreds. One might argue that if it was a coordinated evacuation, perhaps William and Barbara Everett wouldn't have lost their lives.

In case Suthers missed it, the Independent reported on Dec. 12, 2012 ("Misfire," Cover story), the following findings, based on reports written by firefighters themselves as well as other documentation:
• When the fire swept into Mountain Shadows, the city had a mere four firefighting vehicles, or apparatus, assigned to that subdivision and all other land north to the Air Force Academy.

• The evacuation plan had been drafted only that morning, and was enacted minutes before the first homes burned.

• Local firefighters found themselves outgunned, and much of the help from other fire departments was nowhere close, because leaders sought those resources only after flames came into the city. Their chief staging area wasn't set up and equipped until houses were ablaze, and they didn't have a mobile command post until eight hours into Tuesday's firefight.

• When firefighters tried to reach command or each other, sometimes no one answered. Many weren't told exactly what to do and, at times, didn't know who was in charge.

• When additional resources did arrive, some were idled even as personnel amid the firestorm begged for help.
Despite fire observed in Queen's Canyon earlier in the afternoon of June 26, Bach and other city officials refused to issue an evacuation order.

From our report: "Sixty on-duty police officers raced to carry out a plan that their supervisors had devised just hours before, according to the city's aforementioned outline of evacuation trigger points."

Observers said police cruisers sped north out of downtown to get to Mountain Shadows to help with the evacuation, driving over curbs to go around other traffic.

Here's another segment of our report that speaks to the Fire Department's readiness when the fire blew into town:
CSFD Capt. Michael Wittry had already moved his logistics base, the department's only source for supplies, twice before setting up at Coronado High School at 6 a.m. Tuesday. When the fire blew up that afternoon, things got confusing again.

"'Staging is at Station 9.' was announced by unknown party," Wittry writes. "Captain Wittry tried multiple times to get permission or orders to move to that location. Getting no answer, he made the decision to move himself to Station 9. He did not have resources to move the entire staging operation that was already set up at Coronodo [sic], which included power, Internet access, food and water supplies."

Station 9 is at 622 W. Garden of the Gods Road. Wittry reports that he met up with Fire Marshal Brett Lacey and was told "there had been a call back of all personnel and they would begin to arrive shortly." Although the city had days to plan for a major campaign, Wittry writes that "Plans were quickly sketched out for how to manage the arrival of 150 firefighters. Supplies for staging at this point consisted of a [sic] pens and pads of paper. Fire Marshal Lacey was then directed to another assignment."
By sheer will and bravery, firefighters contained the damage, with help from police officers who in some cases worked next to firefighters without any protective clothing.

The point of all this is, you can't rewrite history with the stroke of a pen. When 26,000 people fled the northeastern segment of the city that day, there was no coordination of any kind. They just fled.

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