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Review: Strong Winds, Human Error Likely Caused Elk Fire

Titus Parker
The Nature Conservancy
A crew member patrols the Elkhorn Creek Unit #4 prescribed fire in October. The burn escaped its boundary and became a wildfire.

A combination of weather conditions, inexperienced crew members and lack of government oversight likely caused a prescribed burn in rural Larimer County to escape its boundary and become a destructive wildfire last October, according to a state review of the accident released on Monday.

The four-month review found crews used “inadequate analysis” of weather information leading up to the burn. And while staff leading the burn were qualified in their positions, several participants noted a “lack of experience” among many lower rank crew members, which made the scene more dangerous.

When the burn escaped on Oct. 16 and became the Elk Fire, flames quickly spread toward Glacier View Meadows, a small neighborhood roughly 40 miles northwest of Fort Collins. No residents were injured, but some experienced significant property damage.

The event shocked the community. Fewer than 1% of prescribed burns escape their boundary, according to several published US Forest Service reports. It also triggered the first-of-its-kind state review.

Bobbie Mooney, who led the Elk Fire review team inside the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), said their findings were significant.

“There’s a lot of things we can do better in the future to support people in positions making decisions about (prescribed) burns,” Mooney said.

At a public meeting in Livermore on Sunday ahead of the review’s release, Mooney and other DFPC staff stressed that — while not required by state law — people or organizations burning on private land should more closely follow the DFPC’s policies around burn safety.

“A lot of it isn’t mandated (when burning on private land),” said Mike Morgan, DFPC’s director. “There’s only so many resources that we have.”

Morgan said he would also be sitting down with representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and private landowners who are planning prescribed burns to have conversations about lessons learned from the Elk Fire.

The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that led the burn gone wrong, said in a statement it would take the findings of the review “very seriously.” TNC has conducted prescribed burns in Colorado for years in an effort to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“We will use the lessons learned and information in this review to help guide our forest and fire program going forward,” TNC said. “We have already received helpful suggestions from the local community on improvements that can be made and are working to incorporate our forest and fire program going forward.”

TNC said it has also paused all plans for upcoming prescribed burns as it works to implement improvements.

The DFPC also went a step further and recommended potential changes to how prescribed burns are regulated in Colorado, something that would be up to the state legislature to decide.

“Changes to DFPC’s organization focus and statutory authority may be necessary to reduce wildfire risk to community and create resilient landscapes,” the review states. “In the face of an increasingly complex wildland fire environment, the ability to implement proactive measures must be part of a holistic strategy to reduce risk.”

Darlene Kilpatrick, a resident who attended Sunday’s nearly four-hour meeting, said she wanted to hear more about how to prevent future burn escapes.

“The scary thing is to know how unregulated private land burning is,” she said. “Credit to TNC that they did what they did — because they weren’t required to.”

Eva Bednar, whose property was badly burned during the fire, said she was disappointed that state officials were unable to point to one single factor that caused the burn to escape.

“I really think it was human error,” Bednar said. “It’s not like we want to crucify somebody, but if you have people who don’t measure winds — people who are in training — I don’t think it was done right.”

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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