October 23, 2012
While firefighters worked to save homes when the Waldo Canyon fire raced into the city on June 26, Colorado Springs police officers had their own battle — evacuating 26,000 people as quickly as possible.
“It was difficult,” Police Chief Pete Carey said at a news conference Tuesday. “I’m not going to say it was pretty. It was ugly.”
Carey spoke as part of a panel that discussed the city’s initial Waldo Canyon fire after-action report that was released Tuesday.
There were 55 officers on duty the evening of June 26, and 60 more detectives and other officers were called in when the fire crested the ridge behind Mountain Shadows and evacuations were ordered.
Carey said officers directed traffic, went door-to-door and drove through neighborhoods using bullhorns.
They had little time to ensure that people got out, and things did not go as smoothly as possible, he said.
Evacuees were in stand-still traffic and unable to maneuver through clogged roadways.
He said the deaths of William and Barbara Everett, whose house burned to the ground, demonstrated the worst consequences. The investigation into their deaths and the source of the fire continues, he said.
Still, he said, they did get thousands out of the fire’s path unscathed.
“Based on what we couldn’t control by mother nature, we did the best we could.”
After things calmed on June 27, Carey said the department had time to think about the scope of the crisis.
“We needed help for the long haul,” he said.
The department requested assistance from the Colorado National Guard on June 28 and 150 guardsmen were deployed to the city on June 30. Most were unarmed and helped direct traffic and protect the fire zone from trespassers. Patroling the evacuated areas was difficult because of the open space and trail access to Mountain Shadows, Carey said in an email reply to questions.
“The established traffic control points were sufficient to keep unauthorized motorists out of the area but, it was nearly impossible to keep those would-be trespassers who were on foot out,” he wrote.
In August, the police department calculated that there were 42 burglaries of evacuated homes and 43 motor vehicle break-ins in of evacuees’ vehicles during the fire. Four arrests have been made in burglary cases; five people were arrested on suspicion of trespassing in the burn area, and four more were arrested in metal thefts in the area.
One of the best decisions, according to Carey and the report, was changing police to 12-hour shifts, a plan implemented on June 27, the day after the firestorm. That helped organize personnel.
The report recommended that police, in future disasters, advise the public that officers are patrolling evacuation areas. Also, the report recommended that city staff be trained to provide support, such as directing traffic or assisting with road blocks, so officers can focus on safety and security.
Carey wants to implement some department changes as well, he said in the email. During the fire, police did not begin patrols until mandatory evacuations were given. In the future, Carey would put police on the streets as soon as a voluntary evacuation is issued, he said. He would also re-focus the roles of crime prevention officers who staffed the Community Animal Response Team during the fire.
“It pulled them away from taking an active role in crime prevention and community awareness activities during the fire,” he said.
Gazette Reporter Ryan Maye Handy contributed to this report.