One by one, the Colorado Springs fire and police chiefs, emergency management supervisor and Mayor Steve Bach made their comments Tuesday as the city unveiled its Initial After Action Report for the Waldo Canyon fire.
Their message, which shouldn’t be expected to change much between now and the final report in March 2013, was fairly predictable. The different city departments did the best they could. The emergency mass evacuation on Tuesday, June 26, of north Mountain Shadows and other neighborhoods went amazingly well, given the lack of warning. The damage and fatalities could have been far worse. Some lessons have been learned.
In that category, officials admit communications, logistics and pre-disaster planning could have been better, which became obvious when the city was swamped by personnel arriving from other communities to help. Without an advance strategy for such a situation, as Fire Chief Rich Brown put it, there was no way to handle everyone with coordinated assignments.
Also, the conditions — 100-plus degrees, 8 percent humidity, winds that suddenly gusted to 65 mph — overwhelmed the firefighting effort. Brown related that a meteorologist with the Forest Service’s team described the weather as “the most erratic she had ever experienced.”
Mayor Steve Bach finished the media briefing with a warning: “The truth is that the risk is still here. If this fire had started on Cheyenne Mountain, we’d have lost thousands of homes. Everybody living in the hillside areas is still at risk.”
Those and other comments made us wonder whether the city should be handling the After Action Report process in a different way. As it is, the report is being done internally, clearly a sincere effort to help Colorado Springs become better prepared for the next major fire or disaster situation.
But perhaps now, in the five months before the final report comes out, the city should hire a third party — someone from elsewhere with experience in such matters — to pull it all together and produce unbiased conclusions and recommendations. That might lead to tougher proposals that deal with the continuing problem, and fresh ideas for the future.
For example, such an “outside expert” might suggest the city have its own plan to mobilize meteorologists (we have quite a few living here, including retirees) who could focus on all possibilities, providing continuous updates as needed. Who knows, that kind of input might have led to an earlier evacuation, just because of the huge pyrocumulus cloud of smoke that built over the fire that Tuesday afternoon.
That cloud later collapsed and created what Forest Service incident commander Rich Harvey called an “epic event” unlike anything he had seen. But now that we’ve had our epic event, we won’t have an excuse next time. As Brown put it, the Springs still has 30,000 homes on 28,000 hillside acres “in our jurisdiction.” And the thoroughfares aren’t as plentiful in southwest Colorado Springs, which means an evacuation there might turn catastrophic in a hurry.
We can’t simply assume that a fire such as this will never happen again. It will, inevitably. So let’s not just rely totally on an internal report to answer all the questions from the Waldo Canyon fire.
Let’s bring in an outside expert. No matter what the cost, it’ll be money well spent.