Waldo Canyon Fire: “worst-case scenario,” feds say

Waldo Canyon Fire: “worst-case scenario,” feds say

27 December 2013

published by www.csindy.com

USA — Since the Waldo Canyon Fire raced out of the Pike National Forest into Colorado Springs in June 2012, we’ve harped on whether there would be a multi-agency examination of how things unfolded.

There hasn’t been one still, which we reported this week. But surprise, surprise, just recently a study by the National Incident Management Organization was made known. NIMO, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, is composed of four incident management teams that manage complex wildland fires.

The study, completed last June, isn’t a multi-agency review, but it did contain some elements of interplay among agencies as it sought to identify:

• Best business practices used on fires [in 2012]
• How social and political issues factored into decision-making
• Procedures to be enhanced or expanded
• Improvements to be made “in sharing and clarifying expectations”

The 18-page report concludes that some things went well and some didn’t. More on that later.

What’s odd is that we’ve been trolling regularly for various studies of the Waldo fire after our extensive reports last year, and nobody mentioned this, despite the fact the NIMO study relied, in part, on the city of Colorado Springs’ after action reports, both the initial draft and the final version.

When we asked city Office of Emergency Management director Bret Waters about any such studies recently, he told us the city had cooperated on two separate efforts conducted by the feds, neither of which was the NIMO study.

And Barb Timock, spokesperson for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, told us in August that her agency “is unaware of an operational review of the Waldo Canyon Fire. We feel the best use of time, energy and effort is in the restoration of the Waldo Canyon burn scar.”

A Dec. 18 query submitted to Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr went unanswered.

Anyhow, the NIMO report begins by setting the stage in describing the conditions that prevailed in June 2012 and how the “drought stressed vegetation” formed “a continuous fuel bed directly into the suburbs.” Everything, the study says, led to a “worst-case scenario.”

“The Southwest United States and the State of Colorado were experiencing severe drought conditions with winter snow pack below the 25th percentile. Heavy and fine fuels were extremely dry; the result of extended periods of above average temperatures and below average moisture. Significant fire activity had already occurred along the Colorado Front Range and across the Rocky Mountain and Southwest Geographic Areas. Resource availability was stretched thin due to complex fires along the Colorado Front Range and competition with other geographic areas.”

(The lack of resources is interesting, because Incident Command Rich Harvey said repeatedly during news briefings at the time that his team had what they needed.)

Further complicating matters were forest ridges and drainages that “drain down into the city of Colorado Springs” and “contributed to the extreme fire behavior” on June 26, 2012, when 347 homes were burned and two people perished.

High temperatures, dry fuels, and an enormous amount of “values at risk” estimated at $1 billion, including all the towns along Ute Pass and the west side of Colorado Springs, led first responders to ask for the elite Type 1 Team within one hour of the fire being discovered around noon on June 23, 2012. Yet, a lower level Type 3 team managed the fire for 36 hours before the Type 1 Team arrived, not a good thing, the report notes, blaming “the system,” not the personnel involved.

At that point, the report says, “first responders immediately realized [initial attack] would be unsuccessful given the extreme fire conditions and quickly shifted their emphasis to the primary value at risk — human life.” Evacuations were ordered.

Relationships helped overcome some shortcomings:

“A lack of agreements (specifically with United States Air Force Academy) and at times, a lack of understanding of the interagency wildland fire response system, created friction between agencies. A primary concern was the interoperability between the federal communication system and the county/city 800 MHz system. Not having the ability to directly communicate between agencies via radio created some issues and hampered the ability to track the resources in this complex environment. The professionalism and dedication to the common goal of protecting human life, allowed the multi-agency partners to work through these friction points.”

Among the study’s findings are tidbits that suggest a multi-agency review might be warranted, as it might render lessons learned from which all could benefit. For example, “The incident complexity was complicated by responders from multiple fire departments.”

Also, “It was noted that partner agencies that had never hosted an IMT struggled with the mechanics and needs of the IMT.”

Study authors noted that Colorado Springs didn’t sign a delegation of authority to federal officials (resulting in having “two different command structures [that] could have caused confusion,” though commanders worked around that:

“The IMT had a unique situation; not all of the affected partners were willing to delegate authority. This required both a unified command and a unity of effort approach to the fire. The Incident Command System is noted for its flexibility, scalability and adaptability. The Type 1 IMT used it well to adjust to the unique command structure. The Type 1 IMT created a branch dedicated to supporting structure protection within the Colorado Springs jurisdiction. Through a unity of effort, the combination of IMT skills, the incorporation of local fire department talent and senior leaders into the IMT or better yet IMO proved to a be a force multiplier and ensured “ownership” and enhanced communications across agency boundaries.”

However, the report also points out that allowing the Springs to retain local “home rule” authority over firefighters might not work every time: “It is recommended that on future incidents that we consider assigning fire department resources to the IMT as opposed to leaving them under control of the fire department.”

Internal weaknesses included:

• A resistance to looking outside the federal Geographic Area Coordinating Center for resources, and “although local Fire Department Engines and contract resources were available, there was hesitancy to deploy them in all situations.”

• Accommodating numerous dignitary visits was disruptive. Visitors included President Obama, Gov. Hickenlooper, Colorado’s Congressional delegation, secretaries of Agriculture and Homeland Security, Chief of the Forest Service, Under Secretary for Natural Resources & Environment, military officers and various other elected officials and their staffs.

While their interest in the fire gave us an opportunity to tell our story, we need to understand the impact of VIP visits on the incident management team and agency administrators. One or two visits are easy, but many may become taxing. When multiple VIP visits are anticipated (i.e., during election years and high profile fires), they should be recognized as an incident within an incident and appropriate resources ordered to assist [the Type 1 Team].
(On the other hand, the report notes, “The Forest Supervisor [Jerri Marr] was instrumental in bringing together city and county officials to keep the community informed. This work continues to reap benefits from a grateful community. One interviewee summed it up by saying, ‘For once the Forest Service was the good guy.’”)

• Use of military assets could be improved:

Items that can be enhanced included the role of the military, utilization of military assets, and the utilization of MAFFs on the incident. There was confusion by the public over the use and role of the military in assisting the incident. This can be enhanced by developing agreements between the agencies to define expectations and in sharing the terms of these agreements with the public. In this incident, as in all WUI incidents, there is always the question of structure protection – who pays, how it will work, etc. The structure protection/perimeter control issue is often not clearly defined or understood by all. This too would benefit from pre-season work with partners.
• Not surprisingly, evacuations earned a spot in the “needs improvement” section:

Confusion over evacuation authority and procedures demonstrated the need for a common understanding between agencies and the public on future evacuations. Example; during transition with the Type 1 IMT, an area that had been evacuated on June 24, 2012, (Mt. Shadows) was reopened to the public on June 25, 2012, and re-evacuated on June 26, 2012. We need to clearly define pre-evacuation, mandatory evacuation and time frames for evacuation.

There is an opportunity to provide clarity and consistency to these terms. The time frames need to be clearly understood by all affected. The Waldo Canyon Fire covered three miles in 45 minutes. The fire behavior we see today may be the new normal. Everyone needs to be clear on timeframes and re-entry so all fully understand. Evacuations are within the jurisdiction of our cooperators, but we need to be clear in our use of terminology regarding evacuations.

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