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Gazette Premium Content City, county, state talk response to wildfires

RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: February 8, 2013 at 12:00 am

The wildfires of 2012 ushered in a new era of disaster management for Colorado officials, testing the bonds among cities, counties and agencies across the state.

Thursday, a group of military and civilian officials discussed three of the state’s worst fires — the Waldo Canyon, High Park and Lower North Fork fires. The officials stressed that, even as they grapple with flood risk and insurance concerns, lessons learned from the fire season will prove valuable while a drought persists.

The panel discussion at The Broadmoor hotel was part of the 2013 Cyberspace Symposium, an annual conference on computer networking and cyberdefense sponsored by the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics 
Association.

The panel featured city, county and state emergency operations experts. It was an unusual panel, said moderator Bear McConnell, in that it contained no “cybernauts,” but people such as El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Jim Reid, who was pulled into the world of disaster management when the Waldo Canyon fire erupted 
June 23. The blaze went on to destroy at least 346 homes, kill two people and burn more than 18,000 acres.

Motivated by the Lower North Fork fire in March and further fueled by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires in June, the state decided to move its Division of Fire Prevention and Control from the Colorado State Forest Service to the Department of Public Safety.

Now that thousands of Colorado residents live in forest lands, wildfire has become more of a public safety hazard than an isolated forest disaster.

Joining Reid on the panel were Erin Duran, from the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management, David Hard, director of the state’s emergency management office, and Air Force Col. Peter Byrne, of the Colorado National Guard. Their discussion centered on failures in communication, the challenges facing El Paso County and assessments of each agency’s performance during the Waldo Canyon fire.

Communication breakdown

Communications pitfalls during disasters have become perennial problems and include mismatched radio systems, poor cellphone service and juggling communications between multiple agencies.

“Those are things we might never resolve,” said McConnell, adding that emergency crews had the same issues during the Sept. 11 attacks and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

The world of firefighting added yet another complication — two incompatible radio systems used by county agencies, one of which worked poorly in the rugged terrain where the Waldo Canyon fire was burning.

More than radios, city and county officials struggled with lack of cellphone service during the fire, Duran said.

On June 26, the night a firestorm consumed hundreds of homes, Duran took over the city’s Emergency Operations Center and had to stay in close contact with Reid, her county counterpart. In addition to fixing glitches in cellphone service, Duran wants an actual video feed that could have shown her what Reid and his staff were doing.

Officials not only struggled to communicate with each other but grappled with the best ways to communicate with the public.

Media outlets outpaced city officials when it came to showing destroyed homes in Mountain Shadows. Duran said her team couldn’t get accurate maps of the destroyed neighborhoods.

“Managing information became a very large problem for us, specifically on June 26,” 
Duran said. “Trying to put those together and figure out what homes were destroyed was very difficult.”

Residents saw their homes burning on television, and The Denver Post published photos of the Waldo Canyon burn area hours before the city had official numbers.

Challenges for county

Waldo Canyon was an unusual wildfire for crews used to battling blazes in remote national forest lands. Waldo encompassed state and national forest lands, county and city jurisdictions, plus urban neighborhoods.

The Type 1 Great Basin Incident Command Team felt the heat of flames as well as that of national scrutiny, all while working to incorporate local officials into their plans.

El Paso County also has a large military presence and many resources that can be tapped for firefighting.

But the deployment of these resources for the fires bumped against an 80-year-old stumbling block known as the Economy Act, which prevents use of military resources until other options have been exhausted.

“The Economy Act is one of the few things in life that is older than I am,” McConnell joked. “Maybe it needs a little work.”

Military and national fire officials are still discussing their work during the Waldo Canyon fire and trying to extract lessons learned, Byrne said.

For city, county and state officials, working together on another disastrous wildfire remains likely.

A quarter of El Paso County is experiencing an exceptional drought, the most severe category according to statistics released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center. About 35,000 people in El Paso County live in wildfire danger zones, like Mountain Shadows, near open spaces or forest lands.

Since the early 1990s, 60 percent of American homes were built in these zones, McConnell said.

“We’re building houses in the forest, so chances are that we will face these challenges again.”

Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 
636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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FUNDING BILL INTRODUCED

Two Colorado senators successfully introduced a bill Thursday that aims to recover millions of dollars for watershed protection following natural disasters.

The money was originally part of a Hurricane Sandy recovery bill introduced last year. The portion of the bill that targets damaged watersheds was cut, despite the outcry of several Colorado politicians who hoped to use the funds to restore watersheds damaged by wildfires in 2012. In December, Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet reintroduced the funding, for Emergency Watershed Protection, into a bill that passed the Senate but expired in the House of Representatives.

The bill would offer $60 million to watershed protection in areas with presidentially declared natural disasters, including those areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and western wildfires. The amount of damage to Colorado watersheds is estimated to be $20 million.

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