The city of Colorado Springs faced daunting logistical odds without adequate plans — and often failed to implement those it had — as the Waldo Canyon fire burned into city limits on June 26, according to a review of the fire released Wednesday.
In its Final After Action Report, the city lauded firefighters, mitigation efforts and the overall response to the fire, while also laying out a number of deficiencies.
Among the concerns addressed in the report were:
• A lack of over-arching multi-agency communication plans;
• Inadequate food and water for responders;
• Lack of staffing plans;
• Poor communication between supervisors and people in the field;
• Unclear evacuation boundaries.
What the report does not provide is a clear view of the way ahead. It did not address what the city has done — or intends to do — in the fire’s aftermath to improve its disaster response.
Nevertheless, the city had scores of seasoned wildland firefighters and a well-established wildfire mitigation effort that blunted a blaze that could have claimed many more homes and lives than it did, city officials said.
At a Wednesday news conference, Office of Emergency Management Director Bret Waters said the city now has monthly training meetings, and is bolstering its volunteer base by providing training in new skills.
But preparing for El Paso County’s next disaster is a work in progress, as few of the review’s ideas for change have yet to be implemented, said Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Smith. Neither Smith nor Waters elaborated on the city’s plans for implementation; the city doesn’t know the cost of proposed changes or how it would pay for them, said Chief of Staff Laura Neumann.
Still, Smith had no doubt that the region could handle the next disaster.
And it will hit, said Mayor Steve Bach.
“Obviously, going forward we need to learn from this. If this fire had started on Cheyenne Mountain we would have lost thousands of homes and probably many more people,” he said Wednesday. “This is going to happen again.”
The report focused largely on the afternoon and night of June 26, when the fire destroyed 347 homes and killed two residents.
Colorado Springs firefighters raced into Mountain Shadows without plans to ensure they had food, water or rest breaks, the report said.
Capt. Steve Riker, the department’s incident commander on June 26, said he initially had his firefighters “well under control.” However, he said that control began to slip as units from neighboring fire departments rushed to help.
Supervisors operated under organizational charts that weren’t fully developed, the report said, and emergency plans were “underutilized.”
Communication lagged between city officials and first responders in the field — leading firefighters and police officers to work without full situational awareness.
While the city evacuated more than 26,000 people that night without serious injury to anyone involved, the evacuation boundaries were unclear to first responders and residents. Responders didn’t have a quick way to keep track of who had been evacuated and who had chosen to stay behind.
The well-honed Incident Command System, a national system for disaster management, was not consistently used, the report said. Ultimately, logistics operations crumbled on June 26 because of a lack of training for city employees.
Although city employees had been trained in radio use, the city lacked a “large incident, multi-agency communications plan.”
The report laid out several recommendations, including offering smart phones to first responders to ensure they had accurate maps. The report also called for liaison officers to help the command post communicate with people in geographically disparate areas.
At Wednesday’s news conference, city officials did not explain why plans were not consistently used, and did not say what they had done to rectify shortcomings.
Breakdowns the norm
Hurdles faced by the city during the Waldo Canyon fire are not uncommon, said Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. Logistical issues such as resource deployment, supply distribution, firefighter safety and the lack of an obvious chain of command are more the norm than the exception when dealing with such large fires.
“It’s just a logistical nightmare,” Judd said. “The feds do a pretty decent job. Whereas when you bring in other entities, they may have some training, some experience, but they’re not the experts.”
He said that as wild fires have moved increasingly closer to the wildland urban interface, or red zone, many breakdowns can be attributed to a “too many cooks” syndrome among agency leaders. That makes strategically planning for specific fires a growing challenge.
Judd said because of the ever rising costs to battle wildland fires, leaders tend to hesitate when it comes to submitting control to more experienced and higher ranking fire administrators.
“The biggest issue is non-fire folks making fire policy,” he said, noting that at most large fires there is constantly a “political debate of who is in charge.”
Ultimately, though, one group cannot run the show, said Smith, the Springs deputy fire chief.
“After Katrina, what was quickly learned is that no community has the resources alone to manage a disaster on the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, or of the Waldo Canyon fire,” Smith said.
Moving ahead, and planning for the future, will be about “sharing the responsibility,” he said.
Interest in change
The city has taken some steps to implement changes suggested in the fire review, Smith said later Wednesday.
Waters and the Office of Emergency Management are hosting monthly disaster training to city employees, said Smith. The meetings are hardly new, but what’s changed since the fire is their frequency — every month — and the increased turn-out, Smith added.
Smith did not have more information about when and where the meetings are held, and how many there have been since the fire. Waters did not return phone calls requesting more details.
For residents, the city will launch a large flood awareness campaign on April 8 that will encompass the region. In mid-May, it is planning a fire evacuation drill for neighborhoods near Cheyenne Mountain.
During the news conference, Waters did say that the city has begun to bolster its volunteers, in the hopes of using them as scribes during incidents and has given them disaster-specific training.
On a smaller level, the fire department purchased more fire shelters and lighter-weight wildfire gear for its crews, said Smith.
The city also is supporting a comprehensive federal study of the fire.
Meanwhile, another wildfire season has begun in Colorado, and the west could be watching El Paso County, now in the top 10 most “threatened” western cities, said Fire Chief Brown.
Some have tired of the scrutiny.
“The hypercritical view by some at times just gets a little old,” Brown said at the news conference. “Because of the fact that they weren’t there. They didn’t see what the decision maker at the time saw.”
Gazette reporter Matt Steiner contributed to this report.