Human, computer errors add to Colorado’s wildfire disaster
National news media are understandably fixated on this video shot by a family escaping the Lower North Fork Fire still burning near Denver. I find it terrifying.
What many national outlets are not reporting is that this fire, covering more than 4,500 acres (7 square miles) at last report, was started by the Colorado forest service while conducting a “controlled burn.” This during Colorado’s driest March on record and with high wind warnings in the forecast. At least 23 homes have burned, some to the ground. An elderly couple that by all reports was more than fully prepared for a forest fire (water tanks, concrete roof, fire proofing, etc.) died in their gutted home. A third person is missing in the same area.
There will be a lot of legal wrangling over who pays for the damage. And of course there is no adequate compensation for three lost lives.
Local reports also reveal a serious communications breakdown. Normally In situations like this, residents are warned well in advance via news reports, police officers, and reverse 9-1-1 calls that they might have to evacuate. Mandatory evacuation orders come later, if needed, but in plenty of time to get everyone out safely. This time, however, worried residents, seeing the fire moving closer, were calling dispatchers repeatedly to ask if they should evacuate and being told it wasn’t necessary yet. Later, some residents reported that when they finally did get the word to evacuate, they only had 10 or 15 minutes to do so. Not a comfortable margin when the only way out is a narrow, winding mountain road hugged closely by trees and brush.
A report in today’s Denver Post confirms what was earlier hinted: there was a computer glitch and automated warning calls did not go out to some 12% of homeowners in the fire zone. A dispatcher said the couple that died did receive a call; neighbors say the couple said they did not get a call. Another neighbor who didn’t get a call said she had called repeatedly to report smoke and was told she was not in jeopardy. Still other residents who received calls live nowhere near the area.
The video shows how close the fire got to the Gulick family before they got out. The couple who died, according to one source, lived just 150 yards from the Gulicks. Clearly the fire had gotten much, much too close before they were told to evacuate.
The aftermath of this particular wildfire tragedy is going to be a lot more complicated than just homeowners settling with their insurance companies.
- Family Film Dramatic Escape From US Wildfire (news.sky.com)
- Crews contain 15 percent of deadly Colorado fire- uReport: Viewer pictures of the Colorado wildfires (foxnews.com)
- Wildfire Dangers Prevent Colo. Residents’ Return Home (huffingtonpost.com)
- Colorado wildfire sees 2 dead, 900 evacuated from homes (abclocal.go.com)
- Firefighters continue to battle Colorado wildfire (news.blogs.cnn.com)
- Official: Many didn’t get fire evacuation call (seattletimes.nwsource.com)