Fire-Alert System Hailed in Colorado

Fire-Alert System Hailed in Colorado

17 June 2013

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USA — The Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs is the most damaging in the state’s history, but state leaders said emergency officials had made progress in alerting residents to flee fast-moving flames.

Though a wildfire in this state has claimed lives for a second straight year, Colorado leaders said emergency officials had made progress in alerting residents to flee fast-moving flames after evacuation procedures spurred heavy criticism last year.

This month’s Black Forest Fire in El Paso County near Colorado Springs, which was 65% contained as of Sunday afternoon, is the most damaging in state history, burning more than 14,000 acres, destroying more than 480 homes and forcing some 38,000 people to evacuate.

But human casualties have been limited after officials persuaded more residents to register to receive emergency alerts via instant phone calls and text messages, and tried to educate them on what to do when they get such notices.

The two people who died, whose names haven’t been released, appear to have been engulfed by flames last week after going home to retrieve possessions following an evacuation order, officials said.

Until this month’s blaze, a fire in the Colorado Springs area last summer, in Waldo Canyon, had been the state’s worse, with 347 homes destroyed and two people killed. An additional three people died in a separate fire near Denver last year, while one near Fort Collins killed one.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who toured scorched areas of Black Forest last week, said in an interview that this year’s response was “an order of magnitude better” than last summer.

The governor said that 24 hours after an evacuation was ordered for Waldo Canyon last year, a process that was criticized as chaotic, 50 to 60 people remained unaccounted for. With Black Forest, he said, only three or four people were unaccounted for after the first 24 hours. None was unaccounted for as of Sunday morning, El Paso County officials said.

Across the country, fire seasons are getting longer and more intense. According to the Bureau of Land Management, only one year in the 1960s saw wildfires across the U.S. burn more than five million acres. In the 1980s, it was two years. In the 2000s, it was eight years. In 2011, more than eight million acres was burned, and in 2012 more than nine million.

Firefighters blame drought and a buildup of brush and other flammable material, and also say more and more people are moving into once-wild areas. Roughly one-third of the homes in the country are located in what is known as the wildland-urban interface, transition areas between cities and wild lands that are vulnerable to fires, according to a report this year by the U.S. Forest Service.

The added human presence in forested areas has increased pressure on emergency officials, who now must weigh how fast residents can flee, and how many are likely to heed orders when residents are asked to get out of harm’s way, some experts said.

Authorities also must balance safety precautions with unnecessarily disrupting entire communities—decisions that have to be made with little time for deliberation. “We’re talking about fires that are on the extremely dynamic scale, with very little lead time,” said Thomas Cova, a University of Utah professor who studies evacuations. “You can make a lot of mistakes.”

Waiting too long, he added, is a common error.

Tommy Smith, acting fire chief for Colorado Springs, said he wouldn’t have ordered the evacuation of a Colorado Springs neighborhood that appeared threatened by the Black Forest fire if not for the lessons learned last year.

“We’re erring on the side of caution,” he said. “Within a minute or two, things can change drastically…as we saw with Waldo Canyon.”

Molly Mowery, an executive with the National Fire Protection Association who is based in the Colorado Springs area, said homeowners should now understand that they can’t always wait for an evacuation order to get ready to leave. “If you can see the fire from your backyard, it’s almost too late,” she said.

That message is now clear to Ray Doble, who has a home on 5 acres in Black Forest. Before he and his wife had received evacuation orders, they had loaded their RV with 110 gallons of water and gathered financial documents and the computer on which they store family photos.

“We could see the fire. We could see the smoke,” said Mr. Doble, who is retired from the Air Force. “We knew we had to get ready.”

They were ready when they got the call to leave immediately—the alert arriving almost simultaneously to their cellphones, land line and email account.

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