Officials laud improved coordination in military's response to Black Forest fire

June 14, 2013 Updated: June 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm
photo - Karen Hilborn and her son Alex wait to head into the Black Forest fire burn zone with a police escort to gather items from their home Friday, June 14, 2013. The Hilborn's home was spared but approximately 40 other structures on Holmes Road burned to the ground. Michael Ciaglo/The Gazette
Karen Hilborn and her son Alex wait to head into the Black Forest fire burn zone with a police escort to gather items from their home Friday, June 14, 2013. The Hilborn's home was spared but approximately 40 other structures on Holmes Road burned to the ground. Michael Ciaglo/The Gazette 

Streamlined procedures, a heightened sense of urgency and lessons learned from last year's Waldo Canyon fire allowed the military to respond quicker and more efficiently to the Black Forest fire, officials said Friday.

It was all part of glowing assessments offered by lawmakers and El Paso County officials on the enhanced cooperation between agencies across the state and the nation.

"I have never seen national resources deployed so quickly," El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

In interviews, press conferences and tours of the devastation wrought by the Black Forest blaze, fire officials highlighted the military's swift aid and fire commanders' improved ability to communicate. The examples were numerous:

- C-130s with the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base cut a day off their Waldo Canyon fire response time;

- Colorado National Guard soldiers arrived to help less than a day after the fire ignited;

- A compromise between state and federal officials kept several Fort Carson helicopters from being grounded as the fire raged on Wednesday.

"This time we were all 10 times more prepared than last year," Gov. John Hickenlooper said. "Just a week ago representatives were meeting to talk about fire drills, scenarios and what could happen."

The first streamlined policy came into play Tuesday night, the first night of the fire, when the 302nd Airlift Wing received orders to drop retardant ahead of the flames.

Just as in 2012, the wing received orders to deploy over the blaze less than 12 hours after it ignited.

But in 2012, the planes sat ready and waiting on Peterson's tarmac for as long as 24 hours before taking off. Though the first plane was ready to fly at noon on June 24, the crew's order told them to be ready "no earlier than" noon on June 25, said Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, the wing's chief of aerial firefighting.

And the National Interagency Fire Center, which orders the units' activation, had yet to arrive in Colorado Springs when the first plane was ready on June 24, Thompson said.

This year was different.

Military and civilian officials removed the "no earlier than" wording from Tuesday night's activation order, Thompson said. And wing officials coordinated with the center via telephone, eliminating the need for support staff to be in town for the C-130's first flight, he added.

"The planets aligned for this one," Thompson said.

El Paso County officials also praised a fervent response from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., as well as from firefighters across the state - including Denver and Federal Heights - who flocked to northern El Paso County to battle the blaze.

New and highly visible capabilities also added to a sense of heightened response by the military.

Fire commanders asked Fort Carson's commander, Maj. Gen. Paul LaCamera, at 4 p.m. Tuesday to deploy his newest asset: helicopters equipped with water buckets from the post's new combat aviation brigade.

LaCamera ordered his helicopters to deploy at 4:30 p.m., said Dee McNutt, a post spokeswoman. The helicopters were cleared to fly under a special regulation allowing military resources to be used outside post gates for 72 hours when life and property are in immediate danger, McNutt said.

Their deployment nearly came to an abrupt end, said Luke Odom, fire management officer for the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The helicopters pilots - while trained to use the water buckets - operated on a different radio frequency from Peterson's C-130s, Odom said.

But 30 minutes after the issue was raised, Odom struck a compromise with federal officials to let them all fly together, using someone in a plane flying above the helicopters and tankers to relay radio traffic, he said.

"They're working extremely well with each other and communication is flawless," Odom said.

Allowed to work together, the helicopters dropped 408,475 gallons of water during 1,410 drops, McNutt said.

The wing's two C-130s made a combined 14 slurry drops, leaving 37,329 gallons of retardant on the ground, said Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield, a wing spokesman.

On Friday, LaCamera cleared the helicopters to fly another 10 days, McNutt said - an order that also allowed several dozers with the 52nd Engineer Battalion to remain cutting fire lines near Meridian Road.

Meetings, exercises and after-action reviews between civilian firefighters and their military counterparts were the biggest keys to the smooth response, said Colorado Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Peter Byrne.

Byrne has served as dual-status commander during the fire - a unique position allowing him to direct active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops.

"It's a matter or education and understanding the system," Byrne said.

Still, he acknowledged the streamlined policies' limitations. Despite the quickened response and better communication, the Black Forest fire still claimed two lives while burning at least 419 homes.

"We're acting faster, and some of those things are just things you can't stop once it starts," Byrne said. "Mother Nature, with the dryness around here, is pretty cruel."

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