DENVER — Monday, April 16, 2012 — A team of specialists led by U.S. Forest Service veteran William Bass has completed its review of the prescribed fire that preceded the Lower North Fork fire in Jefferson County.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado State University, which oversees the Colorado State Forest Service, called for the independent review last month. The review was specifically charged to address only the prescribed fire up to the time of the wildfire declaration.
Other official reviews of the Lower North Fork fire are either underway or pending.
“This prescribed fire review is one step toward a better understanding of what happened before the Lower North Fork fire escaped,” Hickenlooper said. “Our hearts continue to go out to the families who lost loved ones and property in this fire. No human activity is fail-safe and error free, particularly in the face of Mother Nature, but we have an obligation to learn from this fire and do all we can to prevent similar tragedies. We greatly appreciate Bill Bass and his team for lending their expertise and reviewing what happened with the prescribed fire.”
Bass compiled a 152-page report that assembles the facts of the prescribed fire, assesses the planning, protocols and execution of the prescribed fire, and examines the factors that led to the fire’s escape. The review included extensive data collection, weather information, interviews with personnel involved and assessment of the preparation for the prescribed fire conducted by Colorado State Forest Service.
The report points to a combination of factors that led to escape of the prescribed fire. Those factors include:
• Unburned fuels and residual heat still present within the prescribed burn area four days after the initial burn.
• Routinely successful best practices, including a 200-foot buffer around the burn, proved to be ineffective.
• Professional judgment by fire managers that the burn was secure and that readiness for wildfires in uncontrolled settings took priority.
• Weather and fire behavior projections that did not sufficiently predict the complete set of circumstances.
• Rapidly escalating winds creating spot fires that exceeded the capacity of firefighters on the ground.
The report also includes a handful of recommendations for the state and other agencies to consider, including:
• Improve various weather information and fire-danger rating systems to ensure accurate data is provided to fire management agencies.
• Strengthen Colorado State Forest Service mop-up standards with greater attention to unburned fuel and residual heat. Consider extending timelines for patrols and monitoring for prescribed fires in more populated forested regions of the foothills.
• Consider using an outside technical reviewer for more complex prescribed burns, particularly those covering multiple jurisdictions.
• Consider burning fuels created by mechanical forest thinning and grinding (“masticating”) separately from the natural fuels.
A full text of the Lower North Fork prescribed fire review can be found at here.
Separate from the prescribed fire review, important questions have surfaced about how to ensure accountability and coordination between the Colorado State Forest Service and the state’s Division of Emergency Management during wildfires.
“We must ensure that going forward we have one central point for authority over wildfire coordination at the state level,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper and CSU President Tony Frank have directed their chiefs of staff (Roxane White for the Governor’s Office and Mark Gill for CSU) to convene officials of the Colorado State Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, the Department of Public Safety, the Division of Fire Safety and Colorado State University to thoroughly examine emergency response capabilities.
This review will seek recommendations for improvements in emergency coordination between the Colorado State Forest Service and the Division of Emergency Management so that officials can improve response to wildfires. In addition, the officials will assess potential organizational changes to ensure the Colorado State Forest Service is best positioned to serve the entire state.
Hickenlooper also announced today he is joining with U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman on a letter they are sending to the U.S. Forest Service seeking a federal review of the Lower North Fork fire. The requested review will examine such things as fire suppression efforts, evacuation procedures, communication among responders and residents as well as forest and weather conditions that led to this wildfire.
While this review would be similar in breadth and scope of studies conducted after the Hayman Fire and Fourmile Canyon Fire, the letter also asks that the review provide the opportunity for the affected public to provide input about what happened at the Lower North Fork fire. That input will include experiences with 911 and the early-warning system, the evacuation procedures and recovery efforts after the fire was contained.
Another review still pending involves a comprehensive examination of the protocols and procedures of prescribed burning on state lands or by state agencies. The governor has suspended the use of prescribed burns by state agencies, or on state lands, until this broader review is complete.
Each of these reviews is distinct from a separate law enforcement investigation by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, aided by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and other local, state and federal agencies, that is designed to determine the origin of the Lower North Fork fire and the circumstances surrounding the fatalities connected to the fire.