A call early on June 23 alerting the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to the possible start of what would become known as the Waldo Canyon fire went unheeded after a dispatcher failed to follow protocol, Sheriff Terry Maketa said Wednesday.
U.S. Forest Service and El Paso County fire crews had searched the Waldo Canyon trail area unsuccessfully during the evening and into the night on June 22, looking for smoke and flames from a reported fire. Forest Service crews returned in the morning to continue the search.
A jogger who was running along the trail about 7 a.m. found an actual smoldering fire - and may have been the first person to encounter flames that would erupt into the state's most destructive wildfire. As soon as the jogger got cell phone reception - about 45 minutes later - he called authorities.
But the man's name, number and exact location went unrecorded by dispatch, and Maketa said he and and fire investigators did not know about the call until days later, after the fire had tripled in size and destroyed 347 homes.
The dispatcher failed to send the witness's name and contact information along with basic fire information to the sheriff's fire center, which could then request resources to fight the flames if necessary. About a month after the call, the dispatcher was disciplined for her violation following an internal affairs review by the sheriff's office, said Maketa. The dispatcher remains in the sheriff's employ, and her mistake is a good lesson in the perils of complacency, said Maketa.
'The constant battle for us is trying to fend off complacency as a result of repetition over and over and over. We think this is a factor that entered into this, ' Maketa said. 'It's somewhat tragic, but it's a tremendous learning tool for people. She knew what she was supposed to do. These details could have been helpful. '
The details could have helped crews pinpoint the early flames of the Waldo Canyon fire, which may have been burning through the night. A column of smoke was visible to much of the region by noon on June 23.
According to an audio recording provided to The Gazette of the initial call, the jogger had been running along the Waldo Canyon trail around 7 a.m., when he smelled smoke, and decided to veer off onto a dog-leg, he told the dispatcher at 7:50 a.m. There, he ran into an active fire - about 100 feet by 100 feet in size, and growing as it smoldered through dry fuel. The dispatcher had been briefed about the June 22 smoke investigation - dubbed the Pyramid Mountain fire - and assumed that all smoke-related calls fit under that umbrella.
'Pueblo Forest Service checked on that last night. They said they would be sending up another unit first thing this morning to check on it, but they are aware of it and they will be up there shortly this morning, ' the dispatcher told the jogger before hanging up.
It is likely that the jogger and the fire crews were in the forest at the same time, Maketa added. But the jogger had found something the crews had not: actual fire.
Eventually, the sheriff's office found the jogger, who blogged about his call with the dispatcher, and he was questioned by fire investigators. The man is not suspected of causing the fire, but his name will not be released until the investigation is completed, said Maketa.
The Waldo Canyon is rugged and even if the jogger's information had been passed along, Maketa said he suspects it would have taken firefighters a long time to reach the blaze.
In its after action report of the Waldo Canyon fire, released in mid-April, the sheriff's office counted the incident among its weaker points when it came to responding to the fire. Dispatchers and fire crews struggled to locate the fire since smoke was reported on June 22, the report said.
'Obtaining specific information from witnesses as to their location with respect to the sighting of smoke/fire and responding to reporting parties' locations as they were reporting signs of the fire would more narrowly identify the location of the fire, ' the report said.
Nearly a year later, authorities continue to search for more specific information about the fire's start, which remains mostly a mystery to the public. Investigators have only announced that it was 'human caused, ' but they have not said how the fire was started or if it was an act of arson. On Tuesday evening, the Colorado Springs Police Department, which is in charge of the investigation, said in an email that there was no update to what has been provided in previous news releases.
Recent news reports about the dispatcher and jogger incident inspired one man to contact Maketa with what he believes is useful information. The man told Maketa that he took photos of the fire around 9 or 10 a.m. on June 23, according to a recording of the conversation with the sheriff. The sheriff is waiting to take a look at the photos and is checking the man's story, but in the meantime the encounter has left him with new questions. For instance, what if the Waldo Canyon fire had multiple points of origin?
'Am I saying there was more than one point of origin? No. Am I saying there is only one? No, ' but it is something to consider, Maketa said.
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261