Fire followup: open to all 

Between the Lines

Perhaps the most diplomatic first step here should be to offer this observation: During the Waldo Canyon Fire, it was evident that Mayor Steve Bach handled himself respectably.

Surrounded for days by unprecedented crisis, Bach had the chance to display his leadership on repeated occasions. Along with others at the many briefings, Bach kept his composure and said the right things. He didn't crack publicly under the constant stress that weighed on everyone.

Though just a year into his mayoral tenure, Bach appeared to show reasonable instincts and represented the city well in dealing personally with not only the governor but even the president. Surely, he accepted the help of top staffers who had fire experience.

All that said, it has become increasingly obvious that many aspects didn't go well for the city, particularly how the fire assessments were used and how the evacuation procedures were managed. Let's not forget the cold truth: Two people died, and 345 homes were destroyed.

Could the destruction have been minimized, and the deaths prevented, by a more aggressive, rapid approach to building a fire defense before it reached Queens Canyon? Should officials have ordered full evacuation of the north section of Mountain Shadows much earlier on Tuesday, if not even Monday evening?

Read the lengthy, accompanying investigative news story by Pam Zubeck (starting here), and you'll likely agree that both of those answers are yes.

Bach refused to grant an interview for that story. Instead, he issued a news release last Friday saying he was aware of questions and that the city would be conducting a thorough review of the fire-related operations. But it's clear he doesn't expect a negative report.

There's a better way to undertake the internal investigation. More on that later. But nobody should dodge the media as we check out the issues and uncertainties. That's our role, and our responsibility to our readers. To pursue stories in the fire's aftermath, asking uncomfortable questions, is essential.

We're not suggesting that anybody did anything illegal. But there were lethal consequences. From what we've seen and heard, many lessons need to be learned. Mistakes and miscalculations took place, unintentional yet still worth noting, analyzing and trying to avoid in the future.

Just don't try to tell us, or anybody in the media, that we should take it easy on city government and give Bach's staff a chance to assess what happened in the fire. It's fairly obvious from the earlier reporting that the Colorado Springs Fire Department at least initially felt it handled every situation as well as possible and that the evacuation decisions were appropriate. We've also heard it said that the Waldo Canyon disaster was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, suggesting that perhaps there's little if any need to consider it an educational opportunity.

All we have to do is look at the city's other subdivisions built into the Front Range hillsides, some even apparently with covenants expressly prohibiting removal of trees or underbrush around homes, and we can't help but assume that something like this could — and will — happen again. Not decades from now, but at any moment during a summer as hot and dry as this one has been.

Perhaps the mayor might consider a different approach, making sure to avoid a whitewash. He could appoint a special panel from other Front Range cities, with much firefighting experience but no direct ties to our fire department, to undertake that review. Let the panel interview everyone involved, from the prominent Forest Service folks like Rich Harvey and Jerri Marr to the city and county officials. This should happen quickly, before memories fade and the urgency slips back into apathy. By acting in the next few months, a panel's conclusions and recommendations would carry much more weight, such as demanding a better plan of action, planning and training.

At the same time, the city should consider taking a closer look at regulations for those developments in fire-threatened areas (including, by the way, Mountain Shadows as chunks of it are rebuilt). In light of climate change, and how quickly the Waldo Canyon Fire turned into a horrific, house-eating monster, we should think about the need to be more proactive.

That's why lots of good questions are coming now. And they deserve good answers.


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