Timeline stokes dispute over Black Forest fire response

January 6, 2014 Updated: January 7, 2014 at 8:15 am
photo - El Paso County Sheriff's Deputies direct evacuees at the corner of Black Forest Rd. and Shoup Rd. in Black Forest on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
El Paso County Sheriff's Deputies direct evacuees at the corner of Black Forest Rd. and Shoup Rd. in Black Forest on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette) 

A bitter dispute over how command of the Black Forest fire played out in June flared again Monday with a new accounting by El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

A sheriff's office timeline of the June 11 blaze showed El Paso County's assistant fire marshal took command of the burgeoning Black Forest fire at 4:49 p.m. - 1 hour, 39 minutes later than the Black Forest Fire/Rescue's account. Maketa had not given a time for the handoff, but previously said the county handed command to the state at 5:20 p.m.

In December, Maketa also pointed out that a Delegation of Authority document was not signed until 8:23 p.m. - a formality for transferring control of firefighters from one agency to another.

The new accounting came from a multi-media timeline released by the sheriff's office based off radio transmissions from the early hours of the Black Forest fire - the latest volley in a war of words between Fire Chief Bob Harvey and Maketa.

Read the dispatch timeline here.

The dispute started in November when Harvey told a television station that the Black Forest fire was "probably" intentionally set. Maketa was angered that Harvey was talking about the fire investigation, saying he was not involved and it was irresponsible, especially since it seemed increasingly likely that the fire, while human-caused, was not intentionally set.

During that exchange, Maketa also asserted that Harvey mishandled the early response to the blaze.

In December, the Black Forest Fire/Rescue's board of directors commissioned an inquiry into the fire response. A report is due early this year, and Maketa has been interviewed as part of the investigation.

The sheriff's office also is compiling an after-action report on the fire, which likely will be released in the next few months.

The fire department. through a Denver-based public relations firm hired in December by its attorneys, declined to address the discrepancy in the time the command was handed off in a statement Monday.

"We do question why the Sheriff felt it necessary to issue his timeline at this point, given that the investigation and internal review of matters related to the Black Forest Fire is ongoing," read the statement from Webb Strategic Communications-Denver.

Maketa said Harvey turned over control too late - resulting in a delay in ordering state resources - and that he waited too long before ordering evacuations and aircraft.

"He had a major incident on this hands, he was very close to it, could not see it evolving and missed some steps," Maketa said.

The sheriff's timeline - complete with selected radio recordings - painted a new, though incomplete, picture of the fire's first few hours.

The call logs showed Air Force Academy personnel reported smoke near New Life Church at 1:42 p.m. on June 11 - one of myriad calls reporting smoke rising in and around Black Forest.

Harvey dispatched a brush truck and water truck at 1:46 p.m., according to Maketa's timeline, and a Donald Wescott Fire Protection District firefighter reported a "column" hear Cathedral Pines a minute later.

After ordering two tankers and a helicopter at 1:53 p.m., Scott Campbell, the sheriff's assistant fire marshal, asked Harvey if the fire chief heard his request for aircraft.

"Yeah, I kinda caught them," Harvey responded. "It looks like we're starting to make some good progress on this, Scott, and catching at this one address up off of Falcon."

The two discussed calling more fire engines, and at 1:59 p.m., Campbell named the incident "Black Forest."

Four minutes later, Harvey said he would be in command, naming it the "Falcon Fire," Maketa's timeline shows. Harvey estimated the blaze at 15 acres and burning mixed pine, the timeline said, adding "the progress is actually slowing at this time."

Shortly afterward, Campbell asked to establish the Emergency Operations Center and to start evacuations soon.

But radio communications between the two men became inconsistent after Harvey's assertion of command and fire assessment, the sheriff's call log shows. Three radio channels are mentioned by the two men, and calls for the men often go unanswered.

At 4:33 p.m., Harvey, Campbell, Maketa and other local and state officials met to discuss shifting command from Black Forest Fire/Rescue to Campbell's state Type III team.

Three hours and seven minutes after the smoke sighting from the Air Force Academy, Campbell took over.

In that time, the fire jumped across roads and, at times, forced firefighters to fall back as it consumed houses and edged into Black Forest Regional Park.

Maketa downplayed communications issues between Campbell and Harvey - the two men talked in-person at least once before the 4:33 p.m. meeting. Keeping a constant presence on the radio is difficult in a fire, he added.

Instead, Maketa focused on the length of time Harvey took to transfer command, while appearing to neglect standard wildfire practices.

"I had deputies that were put in very dangerous situations...," Maketa said. "When he knows there's a fire, he knows it's a red flag date, we just experienced Waldo and how fast fire can move, why didn't we start moving people out an hour sooner?"

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