USA — CONIFER, Colo. — Bill McLaughlin was 6 weeks in to his new position as Elk Creek Fire Chief when the Lower North Fork Fire started.
“Twenty five years of fighting wildfires, and that was probably the most intense Ive seen yet. Everybody did the best they could. The firefighters just did a fantastic job,” said Chief McLaughlin.
McLaughlin compared fighting the fast-moving fire to, “Trying to bail out a rowboat when there’s a big hole in the bottom. Everything we did was an attempt to slow the fire down,” said McLaughlin.
Communication Issues Caused Delays
7NEWS is asking questions about the issues behind the scenes that added fuel to the firefight.
“Right off the bat we saw a number of issues that we had, including the ability to communicate and get a good situational analysis,” said McLaughlin.
Initially, fire crews did not know where the fire was burning. Then, they didn’t know how to get there.
“The key piece that we were missing was how to find the road in to where they were, and that was definitely a delay for us,” said McLaughlin.
Elk Creek firefighters did not have a direct line of communication with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputies. Their messages had to be delivered in person or relayed through Jefferson County Dispatch.
“We really need to have direct communication capability with the sheriff deputies out in the field, and that became very evident during the active evacuation when we had both fire and law enforcement and they couldnt talk directly to one another,” added McLaughlin.
Fire Crews With Outdated Topography Maps
McLaughlin said he was attempting to mobilize the initial response on the ground, but only had access to outdated topography maps.
“So, when we look at those maps, we don’t know where homes are and we don’t know where roads are in a lot of cases that have gone in since the last time those maps were updated, which was 1994,” said McLaughlin.
Elk Creek Chief Never Received Prescribed Fire Plan
But the Colorado State Forest Service Prescribed Fire Plan obtained by 7NEWS contains the information that initial responders were missing, including a communication procedure plan, map of the burn site and action plan for an escaped fire.
“I haven’t looked at the burn plan at all because that wasnt provided to us prior to them going out and doing the work,” said McLaughlin.
McLaughlin did receive a phone call notification from the State Forest Service the day before the burn. 7NEWS asked McLaughlin if a phone call was enough.
“I think that getting the burn plan and reviewing it would’ve been essential. Having that burn plan and reviewing it and making sure that were comfortable with it should be something thats done any time anybody is burning within our response area,” said McLaughlin.
Evaluating Response, Possible Changes
McLaughlin said the fire was so intense and fast that without the issues they faced, “It probably would not have made much of a difference in the long run. But any little piece that we have to help us respond means the next time, we might be able to make a difference and get that contained.”
Bottom line, “If Id had the unit map that showed me where I was trying to get into, if Id had the communication plans for it so we wouldve had a common channel that they couldve talked to us on, if we had the larger area map that showed us where it was in relation to the neighborhoods, then yes; those pieces wouldve made that response quite a bit more effective,” said McLaughlin.
Although he was new to the department, McLaughlin said he already noticed, “A couple of these things like the maps and communications were things that I had already identified and we had started to work on the week before this fire happened.”
He said the department will soon evaluate and implement possible changes.
“Weve begun to talk about some of the things that we can improve, but were going to need to let the dust settle a little bit. Im not sure that we can afford to do what we need to do. Were going to try to figure out what pieces we can afford to put in place to make our response better in the future. Unfortunately, a lot of times we learn from the big events, and as a department were going to learn from this. As a community were going to learn from this, and hopefully as a state, Colorado will learn from it and look at, ‘Hey there are a lot of ways that we can improve our ability to respond to fires,'” said McLaughlin.
Governor Orders Fire Review Team
Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest supervisor, William Bass, will lead a four-person review team that will examine the prescribed burn.
Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Bass Monday following calls for an independent review by Hickenlooper and Colorado State University, which oversees the Colorado State Forest Service that conducted the burn.
Bass’ team will examine the planning of the burn, procedures in place and how it was carried out. The review is expected to take about 30 days.
The review is separate from a criminal investigation into three deaths apparently caused by the fire and a possible federal review into response coordination, fire suppression efforts and communication among responders and residents.