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Review: Forest Service Crews had Insufficient Data on Weather, Unburned Vegetation

Hick and Tony Frank fire briefing.jpg
Kirk Siegler
Gov. John Hickenlooper and CSU President Tony Frank at Media Briefing

An independent review commissioned by the Governor and Colorado State University of the conditions leading up to the deadly Lower North Fork wildfire was released to the public Monday.

And while the report says the Colorado State Forest Service mostly followed its protocols, accountability questions still remain.

Questions, like why a burn was ignited when high wildfire danger conditions were forecast in advance of the event, and why no one was watching the burn area for hot spots for the recommended three days following the prescribed fire.

“My primary goal rather than trying to point a finger at one person or another is to really understand what happened,” said Governor John Hickenlooper.

He was among the speakers at Monday’s well attended news conference in the west foyer of the Colorado capitol.   

“Our goal is to make sure that we have all the facts and see where the responsibility does lie, and to make sure that we’re taking every opportunity to make sure that this doesn’t happen,” Hickenlooper said. 

But for now, most of the scrutiny is on the Colorado State Forest Service, the forestry and fire management arm of Colorado State University that has no affiliation with the US Forest Service.  That agency was the first responder because it had lit a prescribed burn to mitigate wildfire risks on land owned by Denver Water. 

At the same press conference, CSU President Tony Frank said the university and the agency would fully cooperate with any further investigations and implement reforms where needed.

“We can’t bring back those who lost their lives in this fire, but we do owe it to them to do everything we can to learn from these events,” Frank said. “And we intend to do so.”

The events that led up to the fire getting out of control are detailed exhaustively in the 152 page report.  Among other things, the review found that crews didn’t have the best available weather and fire behavior forecasts in front of them when they decided to ignite the controlled burn.

“The weather component is really scary on this one,” said longtime US Forest Service manager Bill Bass, who led up the review. 

During a separate briefing with reporters, Bass said winds on the day the fire got out of control were similar to those during the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs in the early 1990s that killed fourteen firefighters.  And given that, he said it’s hard to say whether anything could have been done to stop the fire from getting out of control.

“It’d be hindsight,” he added.

Meantime the report also shows that fire managers didn’t follow their own protocol by keeping the burn area staffed for three days after the so-called mop up was finished. So there was no one monitoring the fire the day before it got out of control, even when there was a red flag warning issued.

Bass said a small crew did respond and return the following morning and extinguished two spot fires. 

But they couldn’t stop a third spark.

“The wildfire prediction model works very well during the wildfire season, we need to maintain it with that same diligence in the shoulder seasons,” Bass said. “That is not unique to the Colorado State Forest Service, that is an interagency issue.”

Better coordination, forecasting equipment and bigger buffers between prescribed fires and untreated forests are among the review’s most important and immediate recommendations. 

For his part, Governor Hickenlooper said Monday isn’t the final say as far as accountability goes.  The Democrat was also asked whether he thought it was odd that the state’s main firefighting agency reports to a university, not his office or state lawmakers.

“These firefighters, these are people that risk their lives all the time for their neighbors,” Hickenlooper said. “The individuals working on this prescribed burn obviously were doing the best they knew how, they were working with the best protocols that they could, doing the very best job they could, that’s what this report demonstrates.”

That said, the Governor and CSU President Tony Frank have ordered their chiefs of staff to thoroughly review the emergency response protocols of state agencies and the state forest service, and determine whether regulatory changes are needed in another report due April 23rd

The Governor has also signed on to a letter to the US Forest Service asking for an official review of the wildfire itself and whether things like emergency notification systems for people living in evacuated areas needs improving.

Read the full report here [pdf], and the separate letter from Rep. Mike Coffman and US Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall to the US Forest Service here.

This story was updated from an earlier version. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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