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Black Forest looks to move ahead after year of disaster, divisiveness

June 15, 2014 Updated: June 15, 2014 at 7:32 am
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Black Forest residents put up a sign thanking first responders on Shoup Rd. in Black Forest, Monday June, 17, 2013. Carol Lawrence,The Gazette

It's been a tumultuous 12 months for the Black Forest Fire and Rescue District.

After battling the most destructive wildfire in the state's history, the district's board spent the year of recovery embroiled in controversy with residents and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

"I've never seen, in the 22 years I've lived here, such animosity and divisiveness as I've seen in the last year," said former board chairman Eddie Bracken, who was voted out in last month's board elections.

While on the board he received a petition to remove Fire Chief Bob Harvey, a petition to keep him on, allegations of malfeasance, a costly internal investigation and a hostile election that unseated him and two other incumbent board members.

In a culmination of the year's events, Harvey, the center of the controversy for months, announced at a special board meeting on June 2, that he was going on medical leave for possible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said the PTSD might have been triggered by the fire and a hostile work environment.

Much of the community's rancor centered around an internal investigation commissioned to look into Harvey's actions during the fire. The report, which cleared the chief of wrongdoing, has cost the district more than $100,000.

"There was a lot of controversy over that, but it was something we needed to do," Bracken said. "The chief was maliciously accused of many things that in fact did not happen."

Harvey was criticized by El Paso Sheriff Terry Maketa after Harvey told a local news station in November that the fire, which burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people, was "probably" intentionally set.

"His comments are nothing more than an attempt to mislead the public and a mere witch hunt," Maketa had replied in a statement, noting that the ongoing investigation did not substantiate Harvey's claims.

He also suggested that Harvey was covering his own mishandling of the fire.

Two petitions soon were circulating in the Black Forest community: one that called for Harvey's removal and an investigation into his actions, and another in support of him. Both were presented to the board, but Bracken said it would be inappropriate to take action based on either petition, which had each garnered about 300 signatures.

Additionally, Bracken said, 100 signatures on the petition calling for the chief's removal were invalid, including the names of minors.

"I'm a firm believer that you're innocent until proven guilty," he said. "There are 7,000 registered voters in this district. I'm not going to make a decision to fire or retain this individual based on the signatures of 200 people."

In December, the board hired retired Greenwood Village police commander David Fisher to conduct an internal investigation into Harvey's actions.

"If Chief Harvey did in fact make some errors, we would have had to fire him," Bracken said.

The executive summary of the report, released in February, exonerated the chief.

"No matter who was in charge at what time, no one was going to be able to stop this fire," Fisher said during a Feb. 19 news conference. "I haven't been able to determine that anyone could have done anything better."

The board had hoped that would be the end of the allegations against Harvey, but the disagreement between the board and the Sheriff's Office persisted.

When the full 2,000-page report was released in April, it alleged, among other things, that a 2,000 gallon tactical tender from the Falcon Fire Deparment was sent to protect the home of Robert McDonald, the commander of emergency services with El Paso County. It also alleged that incident commander and the sheriff's assistant fire marshal, Scott Campbell, started a backfire that destroyed a home and put firefighters and equipment in danger. The event was outlined in a SAFENET report filed by Harvey in October. SAFENET, a program under the National Interagency Fire Center, is a reporting tool used by firefighters to report or resolve safety and health concerns encountered in wildland fires. Bracken said the SAFENET report spurred the initial conflict between Harvey and Maketa.

Maketa called Fisher's Black Forest report "a pack of bold-faced lies" that needed "to be burned." He argued that McDonald's house had served as a bastion for battling the blaze because it was well mitigated.

As allegations on both sides mounted, so did the cost of the investigation, Bracken said.

The internal probe and associated legal fees to date include $24,000 in legal services pertaining to Colorado Open Records Act requests, $29,000 paid to Webb Strategic Communications, a Denver-based public relations firm, and roughly $45,000 to Fisher Enterprises, LLC for the investigation and report.

While the board did not exceed its operating budget of $2.2 million, said Bracken, it did have to make adjustments to account for the growing cost of the investigation.

In addition to postponing a few non-essential station upgrades, the adjustments called for the temporary elimination of two part-time firefighter positions at Station Two, a decision that infuriated many residents. Since September, the Station Two day shifts had been filled by two part-time firefighters who were full-time firefighters from different departments. Now the station is manned by on-call volunteers who live near the station.

Residents expressed concerns about the impact on fire coverage. Others accused the board of not being transparent, and questioned the legality of what members had done with the budget.

The board said the staffing changes would not significantly impact response times, and denied breaking the law.

Two affidavits were submitted to the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office about suspected malfeasance, or abuse of power. The DA determined there were no violations.

"We can move money around...we do it every year," Bracken had countered at a poorly-attended April town hall meeting several weeks before the board elections. "Claims that we exceeded our authority are bogus."

The board's former vice president and recently elected chairman, Rick McMorran, was one of the complaint's filers.

"Anytime that much money is moved, and it effects services, the public should probably be aware that's happening," he said.

McMorran now heads a board with three new members who had signed a petition to remove Harvey, said Bracken.

Harvey alluded to the fact in the letter outlining the details of his leave to the board, which stated that "certain members of the board" had threatened his job during their campaigns.

The new board members, firefighters PJ Langmaid and Jayme McConnellogue, and retired firefighter Rick Nearhoof, were sworn in during the packed May 21 board meeting.

McMorran said the board will bring transparency back to the district. Board members also hope to start mending fences with the county, something Bracken hopes to see as well, particularly as sheriff candidate Bill Elder, makes his transition into office.

Bracken said the report can help.

"The positive thing about that report, which everyone ignores, is that it gave suggestions for how the fire districts could operate better with the El Paso County Sheriff's Department," he said, adding there was an undercurrent of conflict between the El Paso County Wildlands crew and the local fire districts. The Sheriff's Office provided an update on the investigation into the fire in its after action report released on June 10.

In a news conference, Maketa said that a "concrete source of the igntion" for the fire might never be found.

He also mentioned that issues with communication and command structure in the initial stages of the fire were two of the biggest obstacles - a finding also outlined in the Black Forest fire board's report. He added, however, that he still had questions about Harvey's handling of the fire.

In a June 10 statement, the Black Forest Board stated that it agreed with the Sheriff's Office on many points, but said it not been asked to participate in the after action report. The board encouraged people to refer to both reports for a more "complete picture of the disaster."

Controversy and divisiveness aside, the new board will focus on rebuilding, said McMorran.

"It's unfortunate that it came to what it did," he said after the May 21 board meeting. "There were a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of different opinions. You know, with the new board in place, we just want to heal the forest ... help people rebuild their homes and get to a point where they have full faith in their fire department."

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