Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

WALDO CANYON FIRE: Homes burn as evacuation calls go out

RYAN MAYE HANDY AND DANIEL J. CHACON Updated: July 19, 2012 at 12:00 am

One-hundred foot flames had crested a ridge behind Mountain Shadows and were chewing their way into the neighborhood on June 26, forcing fire crews to retreat, when the first calls for mandatory evacuations in the area were sent out.

“We know people in our neighborhood that when they left, part of their house was on fire,” said City Council President Scott Hente, who lives in Mountain Shadows.

“Their backyards and/or decks were on fire when they were leaving.”

The fire storm that vaporized 346 homes and killed two people in Mountain Shadows was a colossal and largely unpredictable force of nature, fire behavior analysts say. But from the outset, fire officials knew the Waldo Canyon fire was erratic and had the potential to blow up.

As firefighters were warned in a briefing that Tuesday morning of extreme fire behavior and told to get out if things got bad, city officials announced plans to allow evacuated homeowners back for brief visits into their neighborhoods, some of which were engulfed in flames hours later.

Evacuation suggestions often are made by command teams based on fire behavior, but it is up to city officials to implement them. Questions of who decided when to evacuate neighborhoods and what information they were relying on remain unanswered. Colorado Springs officials, including Mayor Steve Bach,  Police Chief Pete Carey and Bret Waters, manager of the Office of Emergency Management didn’t return calls for comment on Thursday or declined to discuss the evacuations. Fire Chief Rich Brown answered a few questions via email.

Confronted with a leaping flame front just after 4 p.m. on June 26, Colorado Springs firefighters were forced to pull out of western Mountain Shadows minutes before reverse 911 calls began to go out to residents in the area. While calls were being sent, other crews chased residents out of Peregrine to clear the way for a fire fight.

During a news conference outside Coronado High School that afternoon, officials kept turning to look at the flames and towering plumes of smoke. Less than 20 minutes into the briefing, Mayor Bach was summoned by his staff as incident commander Rich Harvey took questions from reporters. Seconds later, Bach walked to the microphone.

“We’ve just been told that there now is an evacuation order for the balance of Mountain Shadows up through Peregrine so please get that on your newscasts right away,” he said.

“Is that mandatory or voluntary?” a reporter yelled.

“Mandatory,” Bach replied with a sense of urgency in his voice.

Watching the weather

The Waldo Canyon fire had demonstrated some of its power a day earlier.

When Fire Behavior Analyst Dianna Allen arrived with the Type 1 Incident Command Team to take charge that Monday, the fire was tossing embers and igniting spot fires up to a half mile away, she said.

Instead of cooling that night as wildfires usually do, humidity levels stayed low and the fire burned through the night.

“So the fire was active early in the morning (Tuesday), even the guys on the line saw that,” Allen said.

Not only had the fire raged all night long, heating up the landscape around it, but a Red Flag warning was issued for that Tuesday — Allen expected that winds would kick up, pushing the flame front across fire lines. At the firefighter briefing early that morning she issued her warnings.

“I knew it was going to be an extreme day. That morning that’s what I told them — that all the factors were there, and not to get caught,” she said.

She particularly cautioned the crews to watch mid-afternoon weather, when wildfires usually generate the most heat.

David Blankenship, a former fire department employee, was in California monitoring the fire through a complex software system he designed to observe wildfires. Contracted by the U.S. Forest Service to design the software, he opened up his data systems of satellite images and resources information to officials in the Emergency Operations Center. For him, Tuesday dawned with foreboding. He too, was tracking weather conditions.

“I told the people I was with that something bad is going to happen,” he said. “It was the first time in my many years of experience doing this that the pixels were warning me.”

By 10:35 a.m. the fire was pushing hard toward Queens Canyon, just west of Mountain Shadows, and before noon city officials shut down visits to previously evacuated zones of the neighborhood. Woodland Park residents were issued pre-evacuation notices at 12:41 p.m., followed by similar notices about an hour later for Mountain Shadows and Peregrine, north of Chuckwagon Road.

Lookouts posted in Crystal Hills and near the quarry scar watched as the fire crested a ridge that had been surrounded with protective fire line the day before. Just before pre-evacuations were issued to Mountain Shadows, the quarry lookout called in her hourly report.

“We think it’s probably on a ridge either right before Queens Canyon or right next to Queens Canyon,” she said in the radio. “It’s the furthest east and north we’ve seen activity so far and it is very active.”

All that day, Capt. Steve Riker, the acting incident commander for Colorado Springs firefighters, was watching the flames from various spots below the quarry. At 3:30 p.m. he stood near the Colorado Springs Utilities water tank north of Wilson Road and Alabaster Way and radioed an urgent report to mobile command: The fire had crested a ridge and he would need more resources, in addition to his three engines.

Roughly 45 minutes later, around 4:15 p.m., Riker saw a wall of fire chewing at the landscape, racing toward Wilson Road near Alabaster Way.

“The flame front was just incredible, if was over 100 foot high,” Riker recalled. He called for all the crews in the surrounding neighborhoods to pull back to Chipita Elementary School. He speculated that homes were already burning.

Riker witnessed a dangerous and somewhat rare event in the world of fire behavior: the collapse of a hot column of smoke that pushed downdrafts and flame across the hillsides.

The clear day and fire’s heat formed the column that towered over the forest lands for much of Tuesday. But when an afternoon thunderstorm collided with the column, a potent mix of storm, heat and wind pushed it eastward. Sixty-five mph winds rushed over the hills, pushing the fire over the terrain at 2 mph, Allen said.

“Well, that’s pretty extreme, all those conditions,” she said. “I see it every once in a while, but it’s kind of rare. Everything kind of lined up. Nobody could predict that thunderstorm being in the right spot.”

From his satellite imagery, Blankenship had seen the thunderstorms coming. The resulting blast of flame jetted in a completely unpredictable direction, he said.

“I thought that it would blast over the hill, just over Blodgett,” he recalled. “And it just collapsed down Queens Canyon instead.”

Lookouts saw smoke pour across the landscape, but they couldn’t see the flames in the dark waves. The fire continued to move past Wilson Road and Alabaster Way, and Riker moved his crews a second time, further down the road to the intersection of Garden of the Gods Road and 30th Street.

Around 4:20 p.m., a crown fire, which shoots flames across tree tops, was racing down the ridges. The fire was tossing embers and igniting spot fires around the Flying W Ranch. As crews pulled away from the flames and watched them devour trees, someone radioed a question to Riker at 4:23 p.m.

“We did do a mandatory evacuation right here in area 3 you said?”

“Negative,” Riker responded. “I’ll confirm that. I’ll make sure it’s happening.”

Reverse E911 records show that the first mandatory evacuation calls to area 3, upper Mountain Shadows, were sent out at 4:24 p.m. The second round of calls was sent at 4:37 p.m.

Across the city, Mayor Bach watched as heavy smoke covered the hillsides. Riker and his crews had gotten out of the hot zones, and Bach stepped in front of the microphones to tell residents to do the same.

Scott Hente, whose home was damaged by the fire, said he and his wife were about 10 minutes from their home when they heard about the mandatory evacuation order on the radio about 4:15 p.m. Hente, who had registered his phone for an emergency alert but never got a call about the evacuation order, said they continued driving home to pick up a vehicle.

“We saw lots of spot fires on the hillside,” he said.

By 4:30 p.m. Riker was getting ready to send crews back to Wilson Road after Type 1 hand crews agreed to help keep flames behind 30th Street. But when Riker’s first reconnaissance team drove toward Wilson Road just before 5 p.m., it quickly saw that the flame front was still moving.

“Their positions were going to be overrun and they pulled out again,” Riker said. “We sat for 15 minutes. I could see flames, and the glow. I thought, I’ve gotta get companies back in there, so we started a second push back into the area.”

Riker and hordes of crews from across the state and the county fought throughout the night. After an infrared flight scanned the area around 4 a.m., it was clear that hundreds of homes had been lost. At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning Riker was relieved, and sent home to get six hours of sleep.

Evaluations to come

Allen and the Type 1 Command Team had watched the fire’s intensity mount, a contributing factor in suggesting evacuations.

Typically, Type 1 teams pass their suggestions to local law enforcement officials, said Paul Broyles, the deputy incident commander for the Waldo Canyon fire. It is up to local officials to take action, Broyles explained.

He did not know what communications took place between the command team and the city on June 26.

In Riker’s mind, all Mountain Shadows residents should have vacated their homes by Monday. He did not know how evacuation decisions were made, but he and other experienced wildland firefighters were worried. For years, they anticipated a ruthless blaze and they knew it would be a killer when it came, he said.

In the end, the fire storm was like nothing he had seen in 28 years of fire fighting.

Hente said a question that must be answered is whether an evacuation order should have been issued sooner for neighborhoods hit by the fire on June 26.

“It’s easy to second guess it and say you should have had more notice,” he said. “But I’ve had people who have spent their entire working life in the fire-fighting arena, and they said that fire did things they’ve never seen before.”

During the fire, Bret Waters fielded all questions about the city’s evacuations plans; this week, officials declined to discuss their policies and actions when it came to evacuations.

In the meantime, everyone who worked the fire, from weather analysts to division supervisors, have begun the long process of reviewing the operation. Riker has been listening to archived radio transmissions to write reports, and fire behavior analyst Allen is preparing a case study of the fire, which she plans to publish in the fall on the Wildland Lessons Learned Center’s website.

City officials said they also anticipate many “lessons learned” sessions.

“We haven’t had the ‘lessons learned’ discussion as of yet,” Fire Chief Brown said in an email response to questions about the evacuations. “It is going to take some time to get all of those meetings scheduled and planned as it encompasses many facets of the City.”

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