Four Year Anniversary of the Waldo Canyon Fire – Robert Volpe

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Four years ago, around noon, on June 23rd, the Waldo Canyon Fire began its rampage of property destruction and death through Pike National Forest and adjoining areas. Before it was over a total of 18,247 acres of forest was reduced to ash and two people lost their lives.

There were 346 homes destroyed by the fire and U.S. Highway 24, the major east-west road, was closed in both directions.

The fire caused the evacuation of over 32,000 residents of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Woodland Park, several small mountain communities along the southwestern side of Highway 24, including, Cascade, Green Mt. Falls, Chipita Park, and Crystola. At the peak of the fires westward march the flames came within 1.5 miles of downtown Woodland Park.

The Waldo Canyon Fire resulted in insurance claims totaling more than $453.7 million. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado state history, as measured by the number of homes destroyed, until the Black Forest Fire surpassed it almost a year later when it consumed 486 homes and damaged 28 others.

Woodland Park residents dodged a bullet only because of the vagaries of nature. Had wind conditions not shifted and sent the body of the fire north and east Woodland Park may not have been spared the devastation experienced by Colorado Springs.

In the months leading up to the Waldo Canyon Fire, weather patterns conspired to raise the potential for a serious wildfire event. The Predictive Services National Interagency Coordination Center, (PSNICC) in Boise, Idaho keeps an eye on weather conditions throughout the country. The goal of PSNICC is to evaluate and notify authorities when a significant fire potential is likely to spawn a fire event the will require mobilization of additional resources from outside the area in which the fire originates.

In April of 2012 PSNICC maps showed an above normal fire potential for the entire Front Range of Colorado. In May the risk dropped to normal, but by June 1st above normal fire potential returned and was expanded to include major portions of Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

The stage was set and all that was needed was an ignition source. The Waldo Canyon Fire was intentional set by an arsonist who was never caught.

Prior to the Waldo Canyon Fire, Teller County was dealing with the Springer Fire southwest of Lake George and there were an unusual number of arson fires set on National Forest land. Fortunately, quick responses by Wildland Fire teams were able to contain and extinguish those fires.

In the wake of the Waldo Canyon disaster a number of steps were taken by fire protection units in Teller County to better respond to fire events, improve coordination between resources, and to educate the public on measures residents could take to protect their homes and families.

Vern Champlin, Division Chief of Fire Prevention with N.E. Teller County Fire District explained some of the steps taken. “We re-wrote the Greater Woodland Park Healthy Forest Initiative to include a community fire protection plan that covers prevention, recovery and watershed protection.” said Champlin.

“We coordinate and train with all the small fire departments and Colorado Springs on response and prevention. Since the Waldo Canyon Fire we work with a new agency, the National Fire Protection Association, (NFPA) to write wildfire protection standards, on home density, access roads, water supplies and development for future planning.”

“In the N.E. Teller County Fire District we have updated our maps and have developed subdivision maps that we can hand out to mutual aid agencies that show roads, water resources, topography, safe zones for fire fighters, and wildfire tactics information.”

“In wildland fires there are three determining factors that affect the severity of a fire; Terrain, Weather, and Fuel. We cannot control the terrain or the weather but we can control the fuel.” said Champlin.

Thanks to the efforts of agencies like the NFPA and local fire prevention resources there are pages of information that can help you to plan for a fire event and more importantly information on how to prepare a defensive area around your home.

Home owners are urged to develop a plan to protect their home and families. First and foremost, create a Family Disaster Plan that includes meeting locations and communication plans and rehearse it regularly. Don’t forget to include your animals in your plan.

Have fire extinguishers on hand, make sure they are charged and train your family how to use them.

Be sure every family member knows the location and how to turn off gas, electric and water main shut-offs.

Plan several different evacuation routes.

Designate an emergency meeting location outside the fire hazard area.

Assemble an emergency supply kit as recommended by the American Red Cross

Appoint and out-of-the-area friend or relative as a point of contact so you can communicate with family members who have relocated.

Maintain a list of emergency contact numbers posted near your phone and in your emergency supply kit.

Keep and emergency supply kit in your car in case you can’t get to your home because of fire.

Have a portable, battery operated radio or scanner so you can stay updated on the fire.

Having a plan and knowing how to execute it can save your life and your property. Furthermore, adapting fire prevention guidelines can save you money on your home owners insurance. In fact many insurance companies are now surveying their customer’s homes and identifying potential risks and hazards and requiring home owners to comply with their standards or risk being dropped by the insurer.

Chief Champlin is available to talk to your Home Owners Association to explain how to create a defensive zone around your home and there are a series of pamphlets you can pick up at the fire house to help you plan for an emergency. The fire house is located at 1010 Evergreen Heights Dr, Woodland Park, CO 80863, Phone: (719) 687-1866.

Side note: I reached out to Steven Steed, who heads the Office of Emergency Management in Teller County, by email with a series of questions, but he did not respond in time for this article.