December 12, 2012 News » Cover Story


How city leadership left residents — and their heroes — exposed during the Waldo Canyon tragedy

Dr. Mary Harrow made it out of her neighborhood alive on June 26, no thanks to the city.

Never contacted by police or firefighters even as the Waldo Canyon Fire surged down her street, she blames the man in charge, Mayor Steve Bach. She showed up at an Oct. 24 town hall meeting at Eagleview Middle School to demand his resignation. The crowd of about 200 met her statements with murmurs, then stone silence.

But Harrow won't quiet down. She lost her house and everything left in it, from one of her pets to her late mom's wedding ring, in Mountain Shadows that night. And her home on Brogans Bluff Drive was less than a mile away from the Rossmere Street house where William and Barbara Everett burned to death.

"When I heard those people died, I thought, 'It's not just property. That really is a crime,'" Harrow, 52, says in an interview. "There was a false sense of, 'The government is in control,' and no, they're not."

Dr. Mary Harrow, Mayor Steve Bach, Waldo Canyon Fire
  • Bryan Oller
  • She wants to recall Mayor Steve Bach, but fire victim Dr. Mary Harrow expresses gratitude for the firefighters who were 'put in such a horrific position.'

Indeed, hundreds of documents reviewed by the Independent, and first-hand accounts from those involved, paint a picture of a city that was ill-prepared on that Tuesday afternoon, despite years of warnings, three days of fire nearby, and conspicuous signals of impending disaster.

The city acknowledges some of those signals in its 34-page Initial After Action Report, a self-assessment released Oct. 23. For one thing, the fire had burned erratically since it started June 23. Temperatures were hot, and fuels dry.

Other warning signs aren't mentioned in the report, but already have been established. For instance, as June 26 dawned, the Type 1 team leading the firefighting effort on federal land had dozers cutting a line north from Queens Canyon. Its aircraft were pounding the line with slurry. Firefighters were warned to expect a "red flag" day with gusty winds and thunderstorms.

But there are a lot of things that, as the six-month anniversary of the tragedy approaches, we haven't been told — and that the city is still choosing not to talk about (see "Making a statement").

For one thing, the feds' warning on that Tuesday morning drew a specific parallel to June 9, 2002, when the notorious Hayman Fire made a 60,000-acre run north of Lake George in the same Pike National Forest.

For another, Bach's belief that officials "did everything humanly possible to save what they could" — as he put it at that Oct. 24 town hall meeting — is seriously challenged in reports filed by the men and women who actually fought the blaze. Consider:

• 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.

• And, as readily admitted by city firefighters leading efforts on the ground that night (see "Men in the 'box'"), the fire could have charged further eastward for miles had it not been for the unanticipated arrival of U.S. Forest Service engines and their hot shot crews.

Men and women on the lines limited the losses at 345 homes and two lives through sheer bravery, skill and dedication. But like Harrow, even they apparently believe they have reason to be angry. And perhaps all of us do.

Heights of protection

CSFD District Chief Randy Royal was first dispatched to the Waldo Canyon Fire at 12:19 p.m., Saturday, June 23, according to his duty report.

He sent two task forces — one with seven apparatus, and one with five — to the gated Cedar Heights development, then ordered a staging area set up at 31st Street and Colorado Avenue. He activated the department's mobile command unit, and told officials to open the city's emergency operations center.

Royal advised city Emergency Operations Manager Bret Waters that Cedar Heights should be evacuated, and it was at 1:30 p.m. City records show that an hour later lower Mountain Shadows (south of Chuckwagon Road) was evacuated, too.

As the afternoon went on, the plume moved north and northeast, flames occasionally reaching 150 feet above the treetops, Royal writes. He assigned one of Cedar Heights' task forces to the Queens Canyon area, including the historic Glen Eyrie estate, where firefighters removed flammable materials and otherwise mitigated fire risks, including closing windows and curtains and removing brush around buildings. (Later that night, the Forest Service would arrive to help there, too.) Lastly, Royal sent a third task force of two engines and two brush trucks to lower Mountain Shadows.

The deployments quickly tapped out the department, prompting the city to ask fire departments from Stratmoor Hills, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Cimarron Hills and Peterson Air Force Base to fill four city stations on Saturday. Three more were left empty.

As the city deployed its resources on Saturday, Colorado Springs Utilities' Catamount Wildland Fire Team began to cut a firebreak above Cedar Heights, an effort that would continue in the following days.

In Cedar Heights itself, firefighters patrolled, watched for flying sparks, mopped the dozer line, and mitigated around homes, as explains Engine 20's Company Officer Aaron McConnellogue.

"We prepared every home located on 3 Graces Dr and Old Scotchman Way," he notes in his report. "Entry was made into almost every home by way of unlocked doors. Tasks performed were exterior removal of low lying ladder fuels, Lp Gas [propane] bottles moved to the street, firewood and patio furniture moved from decks, interior prep consisted of closing all doors and windows, dropping all blinds, and closing windows coverings."

For days, Cedar Heights, whose 183 single-family homes bear an assessed average value of $546,000, was given high-priority treatment. A total of 14 Springs fire apparatus were posted there the first day, and 23 the second, city records show. That's compared to four on Saturday and none on Sunday for the 1,413 single-family homes (average value, $340,000) in all of Mountain Shadows.

Early in the firefight, the need was obvious: The fire crawled to the western edge of Cedar Heights by Sunday night or Monday morning, where the dozer line played a key role in holding the flames at bay. But it's striking that no fewer than 11 apparatus were on duty in Cedar Heights daily for the first eight days of the fire, including most of Tuesday — and that only well after Mountain Shadows homes caught fire were some units redirected.

Bach explained the dedication to Cedar Heights this way at an Oct. 23 news conference: "Cedar Heights is the poster child for the Waldo Canyon Fire. We honestly thought that first afternoon Cedar Heights was gonna go, because the winds were strong. Even though the people of Cedar Heights over the last three years with the Fire Department had done a lot of mitigation, there was real concern the Cedar Heights homes would all be gone. The winds shifted and went the other way."

'Crazy conditions'

Harrow would have been happy to have seen firefighters in her neighborhood Tuesday morning.

"If somebody said, 'We have to cut all your trees down to save your house,' I would say, 'Give me a chain saw,'" she says.

As it happens, one of Harrow's patients at her medical practice is a firefighter. That morning, she says, that firefighter told her, "The winds are going to shift against you today." So, after heading home at noon, she and a co-worker removed a wood pile from her stucco and tile-roofed house. "We swept it all up and stood back and said, 'Any fire marshal would be proud to look at this house.'"

Having worked late the night before, she decided at about 2 to take a nap.

Unbeknownst to her, a strange morning in the field was turning into a scary afternoon.

It began with the Type 1 team's 6 a.m. briefing at the Incident Command Post (ICP) at Holmes Middle School. There, writes Colorado Springs Utilities wildland team chief Mike Myers, "we were told by the Fire Behavior Analyst that the day's conditions would be exactly the same as the day the Hayman fire blew up. This was communicated to the crews for heightened awareness of the expected fire behavior."

The Forest Service action plan for that day reported a Haines index — a measure of rapid forest-fire growth potential — of 6, the highest possible. The report predicted "thunderstorms with little rain and gusty outflow winds" and noted "late morning cumulus forming." Meanwhile, an earlier Forest Service report had set the moisture content of 1,000-hour fuels (dead tree trunks and branches 3 to 9 inches in diameter) at a mere 5 percent to 6 percent. Fine dead fuels, those up to a half-inch in diameter, were at 2 percent.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Hayman Fire, U.S. Forest Service
  • Courtesy ICP Waldo Team
  • Tuesday morning, the U.S. Forest Service said weather conditions mirrored those of the Hayman Fire's worst day. Sure enough, the Waldo fire grew from 4,500 to 15,622 acres on Tuesday, including 1,516 acres within city limits.

Darrell Schulte of Montana says such "crazy, unbelievably dry" conditions can complicate efforts to predict what a fire might do, especially if gusty winds and steep slopes are in play. A 27-year wildland fire and fuels manager with the Forest Service, Schulte is a fire behavior and planning instructor, and consultant who forecasted weather for the 2011 Texas fires.

After reviewing the Forest Service's Waldo action plans, weather and fuels reports, and terrain, Schulte says, "I would expect the unexpected. Any of those canyons could bring it into town," especially considering the pyrocumulus cloud column that was forming (see "Inside the nightmare," News, July 4). Having worked with Incident Commander Rich Harvey's fire behaviorialist, Diana Allen, in the past, Schulte says the incident command team would have been "well aware of the risks." (Harvey has not replied to repeated requests for an interview.)

Forest Service action plans for Monday and Tuesday had identified the city's entire western border as being in danger, and Tuesday morning brought air bombardments in the Queens Canyon area — which many in the ICP interpreted as a signal that Harvey was worried.

"Everybody knew when Queens Canyon got hit, hold onto your boot straps," says Imad Karaki, an El Paso County official who spent 20-hour days in the ICP running IT and administrative support. "I'm not a firefighter, and I knew that. All the briefings said if this fire crosses Queens Canyon, it would be huge."

A GIS burn map shows that the fire's eastern edge as of Monday's nightfall was about 3,100 feet from the bottom of Queens Canyon, 5,100 feet from the east ridge of Queens Canyon, and 8,600 feet from the ridge above Mountain Shadows. If, as Bach and Fire Chief Rich Brown have publicly asserted in recent months, the fire was slow moving at a quarter-mile per hour that morning, it still could easily have been at the city's doorstep at 11 a.m. or noon — even without gusting winds and a growing pyrocumulus cloud.

But instead of preparing for further evacuations that morning, the city was preparing to allow lower Mountain Shadows residents back in. The city issued a news release at 10:52 a.m., saying those evacuees could return to their homes for a half-hour. The city's incident action plans that outline operations each day show that police, who'd be responsible for checking those residents in, had signed off on the plan the night before.

(Bach has never explained publicly why that plan was created; Harrow says the mayor told her during a private meeting Nov. 14 that he'd OK'd it in response to pressure from residents.)

Forty minutes later, the order was rescinded due to "current changes in fire behavior." And by 1:40 p.m., the city was advising residents north of Chuckwagon to "consider evacuation planning."

All eyes on Queens

Capt. Steve Riker, a heavy rescue expert with no current wildland certification, was in charge of the city's deployed resources on Tuesday. In his report, the 28-year CSFD veteran says in the "early afternoon" he observed the fire "working its way to the west side of what I believed to be the west rim of Queens Canyon."

By 3 p.m., a member of Myers' wildland crew, serving as outlook on a ridge, reported a "noticeable change in weather." Meanwhile, sometime between then and 3:30, Angela Gonzalez walked out of her mom's house a few blocks east of her own home on Linger Way, just north of Chuckwagon. "The very top of the ridge was in flames," she says. "There weren't any firefighters or helicopters. It was burning. You could smell the trees on fire. I couldn't move. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

She grabbed her kids, ages 2 and 4, and headed home to get her husband. By the time she got there, "The backyard was on fire."

According to Riker's report, two task forces reported seeing cold ash fall around them at around 3 or 3:30. After that, he spoke with District Chief Mike Gower about how many resources were available and conferred with Battalion Chief Ted Collas in the ICP about evacuation decision points — places where, when fire was observed, evacuations would be ordered.

A city outline of evacuation trigger points, provided to the Indy in response to a records request, states that upper Mountain Shadows, Oak Valley and Peregrine were to be evacuated when fire entered lower Mountain Shadows or topped Queens Canyon's east ridge, points that would "allow CSPD approximately 3 to 4 hours to complete evacuations."

Bach has said that Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr and Harvey told the city it would have four to five hours' notice for an evacuation. Marr won't discuss the matter, brushing aside questions during a Nov. 10 restoration event at the Flying W Ranch burn site.

"We can talk about that all day long, [about] what happened," she says. "But we need to focus on going forward."

At 3:45 on the 26th, Myers notes in his report, "Air Attack Supervisor reported fire in Queens Creek," at the bottom of Queens Canyon. Eight minutes later, the lookout reports "fire in Queens Canyon and the winds picking up drastically."

Still, no evacuation order came. Those authorized to issue such orders include Bach, Brown, Waters and Police Chief Carey.

Waldo Canyon Fire, pyrocumulus cloud
  • Courtesy Ethan Beute
  • Tuesday's ominous pyrocumulus cloud grew for hours before its collapse.

Sheer panic

At the 4 p.m. news briefing, Harvey sounded nervous.

"It is pretty daunting out there," he said. "We focused our efforts earlier today on trying to keep the fire on that Rampart Ridge [sic] Road. Earlier this afternoon, it became established in Queens Canyon on the other side, the east side of Rampart Ridge [sic] Road. The activity you see behind us now is the fire moving to the north up Queens Canyon and slightly to the east with topography as it comes out of Queens Canyon. So, we're quite a bit concerned about that. ... It has been a challenging day, the wind, especially in Queens Canyon, the wind, the fuels, the terrain of the lines really giving us problems."

As the minutes ticked by, Riker had driven more than four miles to Allegheny Drive. There he reported fire "jumping (spotting) to the north one hundred yards at a time and then back filling, heading towards the Air Force Academy," and a helicopter pilot "waving at us to get out of the area."

At that point, the city determined "the decision point had been met," Riker reports. At 4:21, as smoke billowed in the distance, Bach interrupted the news conference with the evacuation order.

Three days before, 50 police officers had helped firefighters carry out smooth, three-hour evacuations in Cedar Heights and lower Mountain Shadows, according to Police Lt. Sean Mandel. The next day, Mandel states, 10 police officers and two sergeants returned to lower Mountain Shadows to complete "double checks." They worked methodically from top to bottom in Cedar Heights, knocking on doors, duty reports say.

By contrast, what happened in upper Mountain Shadows — as best it can be reconstructed using personal accounts, duty reports, other documents and even YouTube videos — was bedlam. As Gonzalez fled with her family, she witnessed "a flood of police cars" enter the subdivision, along with residents. 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. That plan called for officers to work from west to east, "ensuring that no structures have been overlooked or missed being contacted." If anyone refused to evacuate, police were to report the address and number of people there.

Starting at 4:45 p.m., fire apparatus raced to the subdivision from miles away in the city. But as they started arriving, they encountered roads jammed with 26,000 evacuees.

Some firefighters were diverted to help them. District Chief Troy Branham writes that he "assisted with immediate evacuations of individuals still in the area as the fire was racing down into the mountain shadows subdivision." Myers notes he was ordered "to assist any civilians" trying to escape, but also that "There were residents that would pass us along the road, and not paying any mind to our cries for them to stay out of the neighborhood, as they were trying to get to their houses." Task Force Leader Lt. Steve Wilch writes that firefighters were assigned to investigate "numerous reports of trapped residents," all of which turned out false.

Just as firefighters arrived in the subdivision, according to Myers, Riker ordered them to pull back — the pyrocumulus cloud had collapsed and pushed the fire with 65 mph winds. "Because of the extreme weather conditions, extreme fire behavior and very high downslope winds," reports the city in its evacuation outline, "the fire moved much more rapidly into the City than the [city's] fire behavior models had predicted."

Firefighters first were ordered to Chipeta Elementary off Flying W Ranch Road, but due to a "large wall of flames" heading for the school, Myers says, were ordered to pull back a second time to 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road, which then became the staging area for the night.

The cops, however, apparently weren't told to pull back, according to one source who was there that day and another who has talked with cops who were. (They spoke with the Indy on the condition of anonymity.) Asked by e-mail about this assertion, Police Chief Pete Carey did not respond.

Officer Pete Tomitsch, in his account displayed at the Colorado Springs Together office, writes that he first used garden hoses, then an ax and a shovel, to put out fires. "In more than 45 minutes, I had not observed any person," he writes. "The neighborhoods were deserted. No people, no cars, no signs of life, except for deer running from the fire."

On Brogans Bluff, Harrow was still sleeping. She hadn't registered her cell phone with the E911 Authority, but might not have been notified anyway. City officials have acknowledged the phone system was overwhelmed and thousands of reverse-911 calls simply weren't made as they should have been.

"It was about 5:30 when I woke up because the windows were rattling," she says. "I thought I better check on that fire." When she went outside, she saw houses burning on her street.

The smoke was so thick, she had trouble breathing. Knowing she'd need clothes to wear, she grabbed laundry from the dryer, then found one of her two cats. Upon fleeing, she got to Wilson and Flying W Ranch roads, where she saw nine fire trucks lined up: "I thought, 'Hey, there's a fire hydrant 10 feet from my house. You're in the wrong place.'"

Firefighters re-entered the subdivision at roughly 6 p.m.

Waldo Canyon Fire, firefighters, first responders
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Firefighters battling structure fires have to carry much heavier protective gear (see left) than those deployed in a wildland situation (center, right).

Answering the call

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."

But Wittry and others pulled it off, the staging area becoming "more robust as time and labor became more available." To accommodate dozens of engines flooding in from surrounding areas and other Springs stations, "Capt Wittry made the decision to occupy and utilize the parking area of the commercial occupancy (Factory Appliance Outlet) adjacent to Station 9 as a staging and rotation platform. No permission was asked or received for this use."

One thing logistics doesn't handle is medical support. There was no area set up for this until Company Officer Robert Coffey was asked via cell phone at 5:15 p.m. to report to duty, after which Deputy Chief Tommy Smith assigned him to set up a medical area at Station 9, Coffey's report states.

Coffey set to work coordinating two city medical units with American Medical Response, the emergency ambulance provider, to evacuate Mount St. Francis Nursing Center. He also made sure the city had emergency medical coverage; staffed Station 9's medical/rehab unit to evaluate firefighters for fatigue, illness and injuries; and retrieved the mass casualty trailer from Station 19 at 2490 Research Pkwy., all by 6:30.

Coffey also worked to find space for his colleagues to rest. Sources say some firefighters slept on the asphalt at Station 9 until quarters could be secured at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs dormitories on Thursday, June 28.

Wittry and Coffey's efforts are notable, because Station 9 is tightly flanked on one side by a business and the other by a road. A railroad track runs behind it. Setting up a full-fledged fire camp with space for rest, food distribution and medical services would be like setting up a used car lot in your driveway.

Chaos on the line

Wittry and Coffey weren't the only ones given nearly impossible tasks. When Tuesday started, Riker had six apparatus to cover the 10-mile western border of the city from the Air Force Academy to Highway 24.

He assigned one engine and one smaller wildland engine to cover the area west of Centennial Boulevard and Vindicator Drive north to the Air Force Academy. He sent two Utilities brush trucks, glorified pickup trucks with water and a pump, led by nine-year team member Myers, to provide structure protection for everything from 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road west to Rampart Range Road and south to Highway 24. Finally, he sent another wildland engine and a brush truck to provide structure protection to the entire upper and lower Mountain Shadows area.

After the ominous morning briefing, Riker's resources didn't change.

Not until 4:11 did city officials seek help from Denver fire departments, some of which already were on the fire as requested by Harvey's team. Around 4:30, Riker asked for more engines; a dozen CSFD apparatus were dispatched by 4:45, some coming from as far away as Jet Wing Drive and Tutt Boulevard. (At 5:21 p.m., El Paso County put out an all-county page for extra resources for the city; units came from Fountain, Calhan, Stratmoor Hills, Fort Carson, Black Forest, Security, Pueblo, Tri-County and Ellicott, county records show.)

As for Station 18, located on Mountain Shadows' north end, its personnel had been sitting at quarters all day. The crew reported "flames on Front Range ridge top behind Station 18 with spotting 1/3... the way down the mountain" at 4:10 p.m., and was dispatched 35 minutes later to Chuckwagon and Flying W Ranch roads.The crew at Station 12, 445 W. Rockrimmon Blvd., watched another engine whiz by with lights and siren, prompting Capt. Kathleen MacLaren to ask dispatch if her company was shown as available. "At [4:45], we were then tapped out to a grass fire call," she reports.

MacLaren's report goes on to say, "To my recollection, we were not advised who command was. However, it was obvious that Acting Chief Riker was the strike team leader. Later, he began answering as command. I did not hear command named or located. After several hours, I did not hear Chief Riker responding as command."

MacLaren, who's been with CSFD for 15 years, also reports that "No strategy was declared." While some units were bringing 1.5-inch hoses toward structures in the early stages of the firefight, she reports that her engine, E56, didn't: "It was not advised due to the massive wave of flames rolling toward the area." Paramedic Alexandra Del Gaudio reports that the crew of Brush Truck 18 was "compelled to break lines," leaving even their hoses behind, to avoid the advancing firestorm.

At least a half dozen firefighters describe moving from one assignment to the next in Tuesday night's early stages without knowing an overall plan. But even as they got over the initial confusion and were sent back into Mountain Shadows for the long haul, they encountered organizational surprises. Engine 18, for example, reports it come upon two engines from Highway 115 Fire District "that were lost."

"They attached themselves to us," the crew reports. Engine 18 first helped MacLaren's task force make a stand on Flying W Ranch Road east of Ashton Park Place. District Chief Lawrence Schwarz then directed it to put out a roof fire on Rossmere and Ashton Park. After that, Battalion Chief Jim Schanel directed the crew to hose down backyards, and put out a roof fire, on Rossmere.

Heavy Rescue 17, responding from a prior medical call at Rockrimmon Boulevard and Woodmen Road, was ready to help. But it sat idle at the 30th Street staging area for an unknown length of time, along with three other apparatus, until one of its members, unable to reach anyone by radio, literally walked to the command post to announce the company was there.

Eventually, Tiffany Square on Corporate Drive was designated a staging point for incoming Denver units. But Royal notes he received "reports of other out of town companies going directly into the fire area without checking in with command or staging."

And because the department hadn't made maps in advance for out-of-town engines, crew's like Company Officer P.J. Langmaid's were told to "split all our companies and place one member on each Denver Fire rig as a point of contact and communications/operations liaison." But as he notes, that strategy didn't last. "This plan changes when resources from Cedar Heights arrive," he writes.

Company Officer Matthew Clark, assigned to oversee three task forces in Cedar Heights, reports he made "numerous calls" to the Fire Department Operations Center seeking permission to go to Mountain Shadows after the fire blew into the city. But he didn't get permission to move until 8 p.m., according to Engine 13 Company Officer John Aker Jr., who served with Clark. And the crews didn't head for Tiffany Square until an hour later.

When they finally arrived, "they remained in staging for approximately 1.5 hours," Aker writes, and weren't assigned to the subdivision firestorm until 11:30 p.m., along with crew from other apparatus.

Back at 30th Street, Riker reports, he, Gower and Myers tracked units using dry-erase markers on a map taped to the hood of Myers' Chevy Tahoe. "At times, the map was filled with writing," Riker writes, "and units had to be tracked by writing on the sides of the hood." They had no command post until after midnight, when the police department's command post was delivered to them. "Its lack of work space did not allow us to function in a coordinated manner, so the CSFD command vehicle was sent to our location," Riker writes.

"It was not requested earlier," he adds, "because we thought it was still out of service for a [sic] electrical and air conditioner problems that took it out of service on Sunday, the 24th." The command vehicle rolled up at 1:30 a.m.


Singular city

There's an element of irony in Colorado Springs eventually relying upon three dozen fire departments to help respond to the Waldo Canyon Fire: When the fire broke out on federal land, city leaders sometimes showed little interest in cooperation.

Then-County Attorney Bill Louis says Saturday night, county officials and state Rep. Bob Gardner gathered in Green Mountain Falls to sign a delegation of authority that would enable state and federal agencies to pick up the tab for local-jurisdiction firefighting efforts on state and federal lands. The city was invited to sign it. "They specifically refused," Louis says.

The next day, the city did sign its own delegation of authority — but apparently made it clear its fire personnel would remain separate from Harvey's team, which arrived Sunday night. In a July 16 interview, Brown said he specified in the city's delegation of authority that the city, and no one else, would have control if the fire crossed into Colorado Springs.

Brown said that he insisted to the ICP, "You're not going to run the fire once it comes into the city." Records show that city resources throughout were dispatched by fire headquarters on Printers Parkway, not the ICP at Holmes Middle School. Brown didn't have a day-to-day presence at the ICP; instead, he and other city officials relied on reports delivered daily in person by Deputy Chief Steve Dubay to three different sites in the city, including fire headquarters.

In addition, Dubay notes in his report that he told Harvey's operations chief on Sunday that he, Dubay, would be responsible for CSFD resources, and that they weren't subject to assignment by the Incident Management Team.

City assignments placed excruciating demands on some firefighters. According to the duty reports, one chief got an hour and 15 minutes between duty assignments. Two crews relieved at 2 a.m. Tuesday were ordered back to duty five hours later. Company Officer Carrick Patterson expressed "safety concerns" after he pulled a 36-hour shift starting at 7 a.m. Wednesday, during which he oversaw 12 different crews on six apparatus. Six firefighters suffered minor injuries, and 52 firefighters were sent home due to fatigue.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 5 has presented Brown with a list of 15 "concerns," most of which deal with the Waldo fire, sources close to Local 5 say. The city refuses to release the document, instead issuing the Indy an affidavit signed by Brown on Oct. 16 saying, "This list is a one page document that describes employees' candid opinions about Fire Department issues and/or suggestions/recommendations as to how CSFD may improve in these particular areas."

Disclosure, he says, "will cause substantial injury to the public interest as it will have a chilling effect on the predecisional and deliberative process" by discouraging employees from sharing candid opinions with management.

Not coming back

As adamant as the city was that its personnel operate independently during the fire, it looks equally adamant now that its personnel alone examine the response. No third party has been engaged to review the city's performance, which often is requested when a fire kills people.

"I would think that an 'outside' opinion of the way the fire was handled would be valuable to the entities, because it would most likely be less biased by internal politics, etc.," Schulte, the Montana consultant, says via e-mail.

Gordon Routley, a former fire chief and consultant who's investigated high-profile fatal fires, says the problem with internal reviews is, "Everybody is looking to cover their ass."

It's worth noting that Routley helped investigate a 2007 fire in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine firefighters. The investigation linked the deaths to lack of strategy, command problems and a lack of "accountability" of firefighters.

In firefighting terms, accountability means tracking who's doing what on a fire. If a crew doesn't check in or out, it's impossible to know who's on the fire line, and who might be missing due to injury.

While some of Tuesday night's accountability issues may be understandable, even predictable, CSFD was struggling with this even early Sunday morning in Cedar Heights. Just before midnight, Company Officer David Broch responded as the "accountability officer" there, and soon found that "staffing levels were off from what was thought to have been on the fire. Some crew members did not swap out in the morning which left more crew members on the fire than the crew swap planned for. This was unsafe and unnecessary and reported to the [CSFD headquarters]."

Perhaps a third party would identify accountability as one of the "weaknesses of the system that could be addressed," as Routley puts it. Perhaps it would disagree with the city's Initial After Action Report assessment that city "strengths" included collaboration between police and fire officials, the evacuation and planning. Either way, a nationally known, top-tier investigator could give an in-depth assessment for somewhere between $60,000 and a few hundred thousand dollars, according to Christine Meier, executive director of strategic planning for the National Association of Fire Investigators.

No government official or agency, however, appears interested.

So at least until the city's final After Action Report comes out next year, the focus will likely remain on rebuilding homes and restoring the forest. Officials and residents alike will, naturally, continue to celebrate many of the small steps in bringing Mountain Shadows back to health.

Still, William and Barbara Everett won't be coming back. In fact their deaths have largely been ignored: no funeral coverage in the media, no public talk of, say, naming a park in their honor. Even the city's report doesn't name them, referring only once to "two fatalities."

The Everetts, Waldo Canyon Fire
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The Everetts are buried here at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Perhaps that's because not much is known about William, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, who lived at 2910 Rossmere St. with his 73-year-old wife. William's brother, John, isn't giving interviews.

But what is known is that they planned to flee that afternoon.

"Investigative information indicates that the decedent and his wife called a relative from their home," the El Paso County Coroner's Office report states, "indicating that they were in the process of evacuating their house shortly before the home caught fire."

Both died from "thermal injuries and smoke inhalation," the coroner's office ruled. In starker terms: When fire overtook their house, it likely was 1,100 degrees or hotter, and pitch black with smoke. They would have felt their skin melting and fusing with their clothing, their lungs searing.

Dr. Harrow drove near their house as she fled that day. "If I had known they were there, I could have stopped to help them," she says.

The tragedy left Harrow with a bitter lesson. "You can't sit back and expect the government to save your ass," she says. "You're on your own, baby."


Comments (41)

Showing 1-25 of 41

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-25 of 41

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

All content © Copyright 2020, The Colorado Springs Independent

Website powered by Foundation