by Rick Langenberg:
Woodland Park needs better maps and marking systems, easy to understand disaster terminology, enhanced fire prevention action, details on available gas and grocery outlets and more resources at city hall. In addition, city leaders must aggresively pursue a previously announced plan to reopen Rampart Range Road to prepare for potential closings of Hwy. 24 this summer and fall. And they should prepare for a worst-case scenario and post the city’s long-term disaster plan on the Internet.
But on the upside, city officials deserve an A-plus for the way they used modern technology and social media, got endangered residents out of their homes quickly and coordinated efforts with neighboring agencies
These are some of key conclusions made from a public review of the city’s detailed 31-page Waldo Canyon After Action Report, which graded the city’s response efforts regarding the most devastating fire to strike Colorado. The blaze scorched nearly 400 homes in Colorado Springs in late June, 2012 and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people, including about 5,000 in the Woodland Park, Crystola and lower Ute Pass area. Plus, a key part of the main thoroughfare, Hwy. 24, was closed, stifling travel between Woodland Park and Colorado Springs for nearly two weeks. “We evacuated one-third of the city in two and a half hours,” said City Manager David Buttery in touting a key local success story surrounding the Waldo Canyon fire. “But we are not here to celebrate the things we did well,” added Buttery. “We want to learn what we can do better.”
Buttery got his wish and received a laundry list of suggestions during a public meeting in the council chambers last week. But for the most part, comments made by local citizens and civic leaders mirrored those of the city’s detailed report that outlined shortcomings in such areas as communications, planning, emergency management, public information, medical needs and mass care.
One of the big issues voiced at last week’s Waldo Canyon fire forum dealt with getting information out regarding what neighborhoods were placed on evacuation status, and more specifically, which homeowners needed to start packing their cars and making arrangements to immediately get out of town. “One of the biggest frustrations was not knowing who was evacuated,” said former councilman, resident and business owner Ken Matthews.
He suggested dividing the city into districts to get more people to understand their status. Plus, he urged the city to develop more of a public education program regarding what residents can do to prepare for future devastating fires. “We need to be responsible for our own property,” added Matthews. He noted that in the near future, insurance companies may not insure properties where requested tree mitigation work hasn’t occurred.
Debbie Miller, president of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce, which fielded many calls during the Waldo Canyon fire, echoed similar sentiments. She said that much confusion persisted regarding the use of certain disaster-related terms that are well-known to emergency responders but not so much for local residents who needed to know right away if they should pack up their key belongings and head to an emergency shelter. For example, she said the “pre-evacuation status” term often got people confused. And Miller gave mixed reviews of the blessings of social media. She said that postings on Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were great for getting information out to people quickly regarding the fire. But on the downside, she cautioned that some video postings worked against the area, and presented the perception of a region shut down permanently for business. This image was portrayed by the national media and crippled the Pikes Peak region for weeks following the fire, according to Miller. “Be cognizant of what you post,” warned Miller. And we must get Rampart Range Road reopened as soon as possible. This point was stressed by one resident and highlighted by city officials. “We think it is critical,” said Buttery. He said the city is hopeful of receiving positive news regarding the reopening of Rampart Range Road, between Woodland Park and Colorado Springs, at least as another alternative route and to access key recreational areas. At a previous meeting, Buttery and Public Works Director Bill Alspach unveiled a campaign to get the U.S. Forest Service to reopen this route, shut down in the wake of the Waldo Canyon fire.
Plus, the need to alert residents of available fuel and food outlets was stressed by Kevin Carter, who works for Colorado Springs Utilities. He advised the council to possibly consider establishing back-up generators, in case key power lines are jeopardized, such as what occurred during the Waldo Canyon blaze. He also cited alarming reports of a shortage of fuel and food in the Woodland Park area during the fire. Buttery denied these reports, but conceded that one of the predominant concerns during meetings with residents hinged on them having access to “mail, groceries and gas.” He also assured residents last week that the city may have to review its back-up power generator and emergency utility options.
Several council members also said they wanted the staff to post disaster plans on-line to better inform the public of what steps they can take to prepare themselves for the worst. Councilman Gary Brovetto cited a concern of what happens if all evacuation access routes are shut down, and if the city was ready for a doomsday-type disaster. Buttery viewed that scenario as extremely unlikely. “It would have to be a significant catastrophic event for all these evacuation routes to be closed,” said Buttery. Woodland Park Police Chief Bob Larson agreed, and stressed that the city does have an active disaster plan in place. But as with most devastating fires, he cautioned that minute-to-minute response plans often change.
“It is like warfare,” said Larson, in describing the battle against a devastating wildfire. “You can’t count on what the enemy is doing.”
The after-action report also has generated many positive comments. “You may have been petrified, but it didn’t come across (that way),” said business owner Cord Prettyman, who gave the city high marks for conveying a sense of calmness. “Overall, I thought it went very well,” said Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger, whose agency served as the head command center during the Waldo Canyon fire in the Woodland Park/Teller County area. “I thought we had great communications. Teller County really shined.”