Changes Recommended to Colo. Wildfire Response

In an effort to solve communication problems among emergency crews, the Governor is recommending that future wildfires will be controlled of the Department of Public Safety.


DENVER -- In an effort to solve communication problems among emergency crews, the Governor is recommending that future wildfires will be controlled of the Department of Public Safety.

A review team appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, has suggested that the Colorado State Forest Service be managed by the Department of Public Safety during wildfire suppression, response and prescribed fire.

All other aspects of the Colorado State Forest Service will remain in control of Colorado State University.

State lawmakers must approve the change because it requires a change to the organizational structure of the state and it requires money being reapportioned from CSU to the Department of Public Safety.

On March 26, a prescribed burn conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service four days earlier, reignited and spread in 80 mph wind gusts. Three people were killed and two dozen homes were damaged or destroyed.

Governor Calls For Changes To Improve Communications

"Nothing we're doing today restores the property loss or the lives lost in the Lower North Fork fire," said Hickenlooper. "We help by making sure we're doing everything we possibly can that we don't lose further life or property."

During the initial stages of the fire, the Colorado State Forest Service was in command. Once it was determined that the fire had escaped, control went to the local fire departments on scene. Those fire departments ran into issues talking to one another over radios.

"In any situation like this, you want to have one point of command, one person who has responsibility for all the different sequences of communications. You have all these different entities and you need one organization, in the end, one person who takes responsibility for that," said Hickenlooper.

7NEWS asked how the fire response would have been different with the Department of Public Safety in control of communications.

"Making sure what frequencies of radio you're going to use, how do you begin doing the training and what's a preparedness level between these different jurisdictions; all that is better handled if you just have one entity that's responsible for it," said Hickenlooper.

Communication failures among emergency crews were just one error revealed by the Governor's independent review team on April 16.

"There were a number of different problems, so it wasn't the only problem, but it certainly was an issue that we thought needed to be addressed," said Hickenlooper.

There were also problems with the reverse notification system and getting residents evacuated. The initial reverse notification call did not go specifically to residents in the fire's path. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office admitted the first emergency call was sent to all Jefferson County residents who signed up to receive reverse notifications on their cell phones. The second call did not go to all homes that should have received calls because the company Jefferson County contracts with did not have certain homes mapped in the correct location.

Door-to-door evacuations were also sporadic. Firefighters with Inter-Canyon Fire Rescue went to some homes, but not others -- citing safety factors.

None of the Governor's suggested changes addressed those concerns.

Changes Discussed In 1994

According to Paul Cooke, the executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, this is not the first time these changes have been discussed.

"We’ve been asking for this change since the South Canyon Fire, 1994," said Cooke.

On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, when a wildfire they were fighting rushed up the side of the mountain. They were unable to outrun the flames.

Cooke said the changes weren't made because there is no longer a "turf war." He meant that department heads were no longer fighting over what the changes would mean to budgets and employees.

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