New planes could have helped firefighters locate Waldo Canyon fire before it grew

By: RYAN HANDY Special to The Gazette
August 18, 2014 Updated: August 18, 2014 at 3:20 pm
photo - Clint Cooper photographs the Waldo Fire burning west of Colorado Springs, Colo. from a rock outcropping on Pikes Peak Saturday, June 23, 2012. AP PHOTO/THE GAZETTE/MARK REIS
Clint Cooper photographs the Waldo Fire burning west of Colorado Springs, Colo. from a rock outcropping on Pikes Peak Saturday, June 23, 2012. AP PHOTO/THE GAZETTE/MARK REIS 

On the searing-hot morning of June 23, 2012, Chris Como and his wife were hiking on Waldo Canyon trail when they saw a puff of smoke.

"I guess it was around noon, and my wife was looking over my shoulder," Como recalled two years later. She thought she saw something; he saw nothing. "But then she saw it again."

Como, a Woodland Park resident, called 911 at noon - one of the first reports of smoke in Waldo Canyon, 911 records show. He didn't know that fire crews had been searching for hours in vain, only to call off the search at 11:48 a.m.

By noon, calls were streaming into the El Paso County dispatch center. At 12:17 p.m., fire crews reported black smoke unfurling over the canyon. At 12:32, El Paso County was evacuating Rampart Range Road; at 12:41, the Waldo Canyon trail was closed.

The trail has been closed since, after the fire went on to burn more than 18,000 acres, destroy 347 homes and kill two people.

Later, it was revealed fire crews had begun looking for a fire on the night of June 22, and finding nothing, they returned the next morning only to strike out again.

Fire search to get easier

Desperate searches for fires such as Waldo Canyon are about to get much easier in Colorado. Last week, officials with the Division of Fire Prevention and Control signed off on several contracts for Colorado's own firefighting air fleet, with two aircraft specially designed to detect fires.

Rocco Snart, acting section chief of the division's Wildland Fire Management Section, is holding the planes to a one hour turnaround - from takeoff until fire information is sent to crews on the line.

The planes will also have "radio capacity to communicate with any fire department in the state," Snart said.

The planes will be available to crews battling any state fire, and pending agreements with federal land agencies, Snart hopes they can fly over fires in U.S. Forest Service lands such as the Waldo Canyon fire.

Crews struggled for hours to find that fire, which likely sent up its first plume of smoke just before 7:30 p.m. June 22, 911 records show.

Around 8 p.m., crews from Manitou Springs could see smoke but "didn't have an exact location," dispatchers reported.

"But it's a single white plume of smoke. Might possibly be a campfire, but they will continue updating me," the dispatcher said.

By 10 p.m., fire crews hiking in the area could find no sign of smoke and decided to call off the search.

"We're going to leave this in Forest Service hands," fire crews reported to dispatch at 9:53 p.m. Friday.

"They are going to come up with a crew tomorrow morning, and they are going to check for any smokes."

At 6:48 a.m., Forest Service crews resumed the search but seeing nothing decided to hike and search, dispatch records show.

The crews hiked up the west side of U.S. 24 and north of the trail, on Pyramid Mountain Road, but not on the actual trail itself, they later told El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

At 9:52 a.m., still seeing no smoke, the crews hiked back.

At 11:48 a.m., they gave up, noting in dispatch logs: "Still no smoke but will leave incident open."

Twelve minutes later, Como and his wife called 911.

"We came down onto the loop, we took a right," Como told the dispatcher. "I'm looking across the valley. It's over the crest of the next hill. To the west, I believe, of this loop. I don't see flames. I definitely see smoke."

Difficulty finding fire site

It was a timeline that perplexed Maketa, who, more than a year after the fire, sought answers as to how the crews missed the smoke that morning.

Maketa did not return calls requesting comment.

The Forest Service declined requests for interviews with those involved in the search, some of whom might have been seasonal employees, spokesman Jace Ratzlaff said.

"There are many aspects to determining the location of a reported fire," Ratzlaff wrote in an email.

"On the morning of the twenty-third, USFS crews were dispatched, and a search for the location of the fire took place.

According to call logs and records, the crews were not able to determine a location at the time of the initial search. The Waldo Canyon fire did experience growth on that day, and a strategic firefighting plan was implemented.

In the future, the PC-12s and their thermal images could be part of the "strategic plan," Snart said.

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