Black Forest fire report questions use of resources, gets quick backlash from sheriff [Gazette, The (CO)]
(Gazette, The (CO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) An independent report on the Black Forest fire released Friday says valuable resources were sent to defend one particular home during a "secret special assignment" on the first night of the fire.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa quickly took issue with the report, calling it "a pack of bold-faced lies" that is "consumed by opinions" at an afternoon news conference.
The 2,000-page report provides details of the first day and initial attacks on the fire, various timeliness and large numbers of supporting documents, such as radio logs. The report was sent to the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office for review, and some content was redacted because it is relates to matters under investigation, according to a letter from the Black Forest Fire/Rescue Protection District board that accompanied the report.
According to the report, firefighters tried to refuse the secret mission because of heavy smoke and fire in the area, but were told to continue with the operation.
Retired Greenwood Village police commander Dave Fisher says in his report that "a very key piece of equipment from Falcon Fire, their 2,000 gallon tactical tender" and firefighters were sent to watch and protect the home of Robert McDonald, who Fisher said is the commander of emergency services with El Paso County.
The report states that the address and owner of the house was to be concealed. But Fisher "utilized another method" and determined McDonald to be the homeowner. Photos of the home were redacted from the report that was made public.
Maketa responded at the news conference that the report "needs to be burned."
The sheriff told reporters that Deputy Fire Marshal Scott Campbell was in charge of incident command at the time and did send equipment and firefighters to the area near McDonald's home.
"His mission and our job was to save homes," he said.
Maketa added that firefighters did what any crew would do and picked McDonald's house as a place to battle the blaze because it was well mitigated.
"It could have been any of 1,000 homes," Maketa said.
Fisher was hired by the Black Forest board to conduct an investigation into the handling of the fire in its early hours after a dispute between Fire Chief Bob Harvey and Maketa became heated in late November 2013. Harvey told a local television news reporter that the Black Forest fire, which ignited June 11, 2013, was "probably" intentionally set.
Maketa responded with a statement hours later, saying that likely was not the case and that the fire chief "may be merely covering his own mishandling of the event."
The fire burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.
An interim report issued by the Black Forest fire board last month cleared Harvey of any negligence in his handling of the fire.
According to the board, the full report released Friday "will more fully exonerate the chief from allegations of unprofessional behavior or misconduct."
"We continue to have confidence in Chief Harvey," board chairman Edward Bracken said in a letter attached to the lengthy report.
Fisher's report also outlined several uncertainties as to when command of the fire-fighting efforts was handed from Chief Harvey to El Paso County.
Reports from Maketa and Harvey have the transfer of command taking place from shortly after 3 p.m. on June 11 to just before 4 p.m. Fisher's interviews revealed that several local fire chiefs and personnel didn't know that command had been transferred.
Regardless, Fisher concluded: "My finding as to whether anyone could have stopped this fire is a resounding no. No matter who was in charge, or at what time on someone's timeline, this fire was in God's hands. The conditions, extreme amounts of very dry fuel, lack of mitigation, slope, and the oxygen supplied by high winds controlled the fire."
Maketa discredited the entire report, saying that Fisher failed to back up his information with attribution on several occasions. The sheriff called it a "garbage of a report prepared by a PR firm."
"I was out in the field that night," he said. "Mr. Fisher was not."
Maketa said the "official investigation" into the fire is nearly complete. He said investigators are waiting for one final piece of evidence to come back from the lab before a report can be released.
The sheriff also said the county's after-action report on the fire may be released in early April.
In Friday's independent report, Fisher made recommendations for Harvey and others concerning what might have been done better during the fire.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHIEF HARVEY:
- Ensure command vehicle is fully equipped with comprehensive maps to hand out to officials and agencies from out of the area that might assist.
- Consider more pre-planning with agencies who provide regular mutual aid to Black Forest, especially in the context of responding on high risk days.
- Set up staging areas and involve more personnel sooner to help with different aspects of command.
- The chief had one portable radio and had to switch from channel to channel, inevitably missing transmissions. Have an assistant chief help monitor all frequencies.
- Work with all firefighters about radio discipline so lines of communication do not get overrun.
- Attempt to pre-plan command posts or implement a more effective mobile command post.
- Consider having more than one staging location in larger events.
- Make sure all water tenders have proper fittings to tap into any water source.
- Involve law enforcement early to ensure evacuations are handled by the proper agency and that those agencies are aware of their tasks.
- Set rigid procedures and adhere to them in the event that command needs to be transferred to the county or state.
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE REPORT:
- Sheriff should convene meetings of fire and emergency personnel to create a working document, El Paso County Annual Operating Plan for Wildfire 2014, that all fire and emergency groups can agree on. It would spell out what should occur during a wildland fire in the county and clarify roles. Also would have details of who is responsible and what will take place if command is transferred from local entity to county to the state.
- A new mutual aid agreement should be considered. The last one report preparer could find was 2001.
- The county and fire chiefs should form a model task force to investigate all suspicious fires. Share arson investigation information, including with other counties, FBI, district attorney, state fire groups and others
- Chief of North Area Group (various small fire agencies in northern El Paso County) should discuss response options and create a mutual aid package that sends right resources on certain types of calls. There should be notification of on-call or volunteer staff.
- On high fire danger days, set up system to know availability of staff and equipment.
- Set up a command and staging area early on.
- Develop a technology research team to see what exists in the county and elsewhere since the Black Forest has poor cellular signals. Establish calling trees among residents, and use radios in case cell towers go down.
- Create an Incident Command System. Use a team approach. ICS is an emergency management system designed to provide standardized structure for responding to emergency incidents. Everyone must follow it so there is no confusion.
- A public campaign emphasize mitigation around homes.
Gazette reporter Carol McGraw contributed to this report.
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