USA –– COLORADO SPRINGS Authorities waited two hours after the raging Waldo Canyon fire had breached a predetermined evacuation trigger point before ordering residents to leave, a review of radio traffic shows.
The result: Panicked residents had minutes to flee the wildfire as flames raced down the hillside into their neighborhood. Within an hour of the order, roads were jammed and homes were on fire. Some residents were still packing to leave when their houses began to ignite.
A Denver Post investigation into the June 26 evacuation of thousands of homes and the decisions leading up to it found city officials failed to follow a preset plan as the fire raged toward the city. And even three weeks later, city officials are unclear about what happened and why the northern part of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood didn’t get the evacuation order until it was almost too late.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Richard Brown said he was unaware of the delay in ordering those mandatory evacuations but said all aspects of the fire will be reviewed. “My concern now is how do we learn from this? How do other communities faced with this learn? That is what we are about, learning and sharing what we have learned,” he said.
Some of those residents forced to leave said the lack of timely notice put lives in jeopardy.
“There were no police, no firemen. Nobody was around except some of the neighbors,” said Bryan Gibson, who along with his son rescued his 86-year-old mother from their Mountain Shadows home. “We both got out about 10 minutes before it got to our house. If we hadn’t shown up, my mother would have died in the fire.”
Despite the destruction of homes, the death of a couple in their 70s and the decimation of the mountain landscape, Colorado Springs got lucky, said Thomas Cova, a University of Utah professor who studies evacuations from wildfires.
“To get (thousands of) people out in such short time with no injuries is amazing,” he said. “If a whole bunch of people would have died, this would have been a far better question about what went wrong. It wasn’t good that they had to go instantly. They could have gone about it more sanely. But they were able to do it.”
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach acknowledged the close call in a meeting Wednesday with the City Council to discuss lessons learned from the fire. “Fortunately no one was injured in that evacuation,” Bach said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Early in the attack of the fire, managers created a detailed list of “management action points” better known as “trigger points” around the fire, according to Rich Harvey, incident commander for the Type 1 team that led the firefight.
Trigger points determine decisions and actions that fire managers will take when the fire reaches those areas, he said.
“Queens Canyon was a trigger point,” Harvey said. “If the fire becomes established in there, there is no good containment, no good place for making a stand between Rampart Range Road and Colorado Springs. … There are no roads, no trails, no natural barriers. That was obvious to us.”
Harvey did not know why the evacuation order failed to be announced when the fire began burning in Queens Canyon.
Brown said once the fire comes into city property or city property is in the way of an oncoming fire, the decision to evacuate comes to him.
But he could not answer why it took two hours to issue the order.
“I can’t speak factually to that,” he said.
According to radio traffic, a firefighter at 2:27 p.m.reported the fire had jumped Rampart Range Road and was in Queens Canyon. “It’s starting to drop down into the canyon,” said the firefighter, who identified himself as “Murphy” and was standing on top of Queens Canyon Quarry.
Over the next several minutes, firefighters from different vantage points described the fire behavior as it crept into the canyon.
By 2:40 p.m., Murphy reported “burning material rolling down into the canyon. So the fire is getting down into the bottom of the canyon. Real heavy fire activity on the western lip of the canyon.”
Queens Canyon is a drainage that leads to a mountainside quarry above the city, uphill from the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.
Half of the Mountain Shadows south of Chuckwagon Road had been on mandatory evacuation since June 23.
At 1:44 p.m. June 26, the northern half of the subdivision went on “pre-evacuation notice” meaning residents were advised to have valuables packed and be ready to go.
Among the 345 homes that burned in Mountain Shadows, 145 were in the northern area of the subdivision.
Harvey said several factors go into deciding which neighborhoods to evacuate: topography, fire behavior, wind direction, types of assets in the way and how many police officers are available to protect the area.
“You don’t want to be slow and you don’t want to be evacuating stuff you don’t need,” he said. “If the fire had stayed on Rampart Range, we would be having a different conversation.”
At 4:13 p.m., Colorado Springs Fire Department Capt. Steve Riker reported flames on the ridge above Mountain Shadows and asked Fire Battalion Chief Ted Collas, ” We did do mandatory evacuations … you said?”
“Negative,” Collas said. ” I will confirm that and make sure it is happening.”
At the same time, federal, city and county officials gathered for a regularly scheduled news conference.
Denver CBS4 TV reporter Rick Sallinger asked Harvey about the consequences of the fire getting into Queens Canyon.
“That’s a good question and a tough answer,” Harvey said.
Just then, at 4:25 p.m., Mayor Bach interrupted Harvey to announce the evacuation of the rest of Mountain Shadows up through the Peregrine neighborhood.
Ted Stefani didn’t hear the warning. He was already packing his car after seeing flames coming down the hill toward his home on Charing Court.
“We didn’t need the police to tell us at that point,” said Stefani, whose home was destroyed.
In Mountain Shadows, some homeowners waited for evacuation orders while others became alarmed when smoke obscured the sun and decided to leave.
Bryan Gibson, whose elderly mother was in their house at 5735 Linger Way, said she called him in a panic about the fire. But when he and his son arrived to get her out, they found her calmly sitting on a couch talking on the phone.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “The fire’s coming down the hill.”
“No, it’s not,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” he insisted.
“It would be on the TV,” she said.
He got his mother into his car and pointed her toward his office a few minutes away. His mother rarely drives, but “in this case, she had to,” he said.
On Linger Way, where 15 of the 19 houses would be destroyed, neighborhood boys ran door to door, banging on doors and ringing doorbells. They found one couple taking an afternoon nap. “They would have perished too, if the boys hadn’t rung their bell,” Gibson said. “Those boys were heroes.”
In the rush to evacuate, Gibson regrets leaving behind things with sentimental value: his late father’s golf clubs and fishing tackle box, “the things that gave him joy.” His daughter’s artwork. His son’s trophies.
“I think I was thinking wrong,” he said. “I would give a thousand dollars to have five more minutes in that house.”
Not far away, on Rossmere Street, a neighbor watched William Everett pull into his garage as other neighbors were leaving. Everett and his wife, Barbara, died in the fire, the only fatalities.
Stephen Gandy went up Rossmere Street with his camera, taking photos of the fire that seemed to be building throughout the afternoon. When he saw a flame jump onto the ridge, he bolted downhill toward his home, which would soon be destroyed.
“Jan,” he told his girlfriend, “we need to go now.”
They were keenly aware of the danger. Each night since the fire erupted, Jan Wilson, a neonatal nurse practitioner, and Gandy set their alarm clock to go off every two hours until dawn. They took turns getting up and looking out the window for signs of a wildfire.
As they escaped about 4:30 p.m., they got a call on their cellphones to leave and saw firefighters driving in to tell people to evacuate.
“The frightening part was people were coming in,” Wilson said. “People coming back to Mountain Shadows were bumper to bumper, trying to get to their homes. Driving on the shoulder. Making turns to the right from the left-hand lane.”
Sue Harrington, whose house on Green Valley Heights survived while others around her burned to the ground, was watching the news conference and was struck by how calm officials seemed.
“I was at my door and the fire was coming down into Flying W Ranch,” she said.
She wonders why she and her neighbors didn’t get an evacuation order sooner. “We all live in Colorado. We know how fast the wind changes,” she said. “How come nobody thought about that? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that.”
Council president Scott Hente, whose Mountain Shadows home was damaged in the fire, said the city should review its evacuation procedures.
“One of the things we are going to look at very, very strongly is when do you evacuate in certain conditions and what are the trigger points,” he said. “At what point do you risk angering your constituents to try to keep them safe? Those are all valid questions, and I don’t know the answers, which is why we are going to look at them.”