News 5 Guardians

Feb 18, 2014 10:49 PM by Andy Koen

News 5 Guardians: A timeline of Black Forest Fire

COLORADO SPRINGS - It was hot and windy on June 11, 2013 and the forest was already tinder dry when the first calls to 911 came in.

Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey radioed dispatchers at 1:40 p.m. saying he saw was a "pretty good column" of smoke coming from an area near Hodgen Road.

Air traffic controllers at the US Air Force Academy also spotted the smoke and called in at 1:42 p.m.

"It looks like a large fire in the area of Shoup and Highway 83 maybe a little east of that," a citizen told dispatchers at 1:44 p.m.

Within minutes, El Paso County Deputy Fire Marshall Scott Campbell called the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch to request two heavy air tankers and a helicopter to assist firefighters.

At 2:03 p.m. Harvey radioed that he would stay in command. He named the incident the Falcon Fire and said it was 15 acres in size and that progress was slowing.

One of the early responding crews, unit 2242, radioed at 2:19 p.m. that they needed more water brought to the scene at 12680 Peregrine Way. The fire spanned 300 yards in length and was reaching the tree tops.

Less than a minute later another unknown unit radioed, "we've got a big wind storm pushing fire to west, garage involved, house is almost involved, pulling everyone back here at the moment."

At 2:51 p.m. Patty Baxter of the Emergency Operations Center called in the first mandatory evacuation orders. Twenty minutes later, at 3:13 p.m. an unknown unit radioed to Harvey that a home at 13150 Peregrine Way was "most likely gone."

By 3:20 p.m., unit 701 radioed, "We've lost everything up to Peregrine Circle at this time."

The Pueblo Forest Service called at 3:41 p.m. to say tanker 40 was about 40 minutes away. By then, the fire had already crowned and was racing east through the tree tops.

Fire progression maps show a rapid spread over the course of a few hours. Between 5:18 p.m. and 5:34 p.m. the fire had crossed Black Forest Road. Fifteen minutes later it was nearing Vollmer Road.

A man named Wayne Tucker who had been near the area of Shoup Road and Black Forest Road described what he saw.

"The sheriff said you've got to turn around right now and just as he said that all the trees right there burst into flame, the wind was changing and it was coming right across Shoup Road," Tucker said.

At a news conference that evening, the fire measured 12 square miles of forest was burning out of control.

The next day, C-130 MAAFS air tankers from Peterson Air Force Base joined the fight. Several shelters opened to take and other livestock evacuated the day before. Snack and drink donations poured into the Care and Share Food Bank.

There were high winds again and evacuations were expanded farther north.

Evacuee Sherry Krenz said at the time, "I'm packed and ready to go; we just wanted to see kind of what we could see that wasn't on the news."

At the media briefing that night, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa announced not everyone escaped. Marc Herklotz and his wife Robin, both employees of US Air Force Space Command, had perished in the fire the day before.

"We were truly hoping that we could get from day to day without coming across news like this," Maketa said.

Also during that briefing, authorities ruled out the possibility of lightning strike as causing the fire.

On Thursday, Rich Harvey's Type One Incident Command Team took control of the fire fight. There were strong winds again, and a steady stream of air craft dropped fire retardant along the western edge of the fire to keep it away from State Highway 83.

The highway was closed and people living in the Flying Horse Ranch subdivision were evacuated as a precaution. Roughly 41,000 people were forced from their homes at this point.

Humidity increased on Friday and fire fighters were able to begin containing the blaze. Within a week the fire was fully contained and all evacuations lifted.

Mother Nature wasn't finished yet with the Black Forest. Rainstorms in mid-July quickly saturated the scorched earth causing floods.

That same month the Black Forest Fire Protection District Board gave Chief Harvey a raise after just six months on the job.

All was quiet until November when Harvey said in a news interview that he believed the fire was "intentionally set."

The sheriff's office is leading the investigation into the cause of the fire. If it was deliberately set, then the person responsible could be charged with homicide.

Harvey's comment quickly drew sharp criticism from Sheriff Maketa the next day who called the

"I think it's misleading to the public on a very sensitive issue, and to be quite honest, coming from a fire chief is totally irresponsible," Maketa said. "Unless he has the inside information, and he's overseeing the investigation, which he's not."

Harvey stopped talking to the media. The Black Forest Fire Board issued a press release that included a timeline of events that declared Chief Harvey had turned over control of the disaster response to Deputy Fire Marshall Campbell at 3:10 p.m.

In January, Maketa published his own timeline of 911 calls and radio transmissions from the first 6 hours of the crisis which showed Harvey held control up until almost 5:00 p.m.

It also suggests Harvey was too slow to order evacuations. The Black Board spent $13,000 to hire a pair of outside investigators to review Harvey's performance.

A petition was circulated calling for Harvey to be fired. Others petitioned for him to stay.
Last month, a one hundred page audit showed fire mitigation efforts in the forest were inadequate. So far this year, state lawmakers have introduced 11 new bills related to wildfires.

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