EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - The El Paso County Sheriff and first responders said there are questions about decisions the Black Forest fire chief made during the initial critical hours of Colorado's most destructive wildfire, the Black Forest fire.
The wildfire tore through the Black Forest in northern El Paso County. The first radio transmission came in at 1:43 p.m. on Tuesday, June 11. It alerted first responders of a "fire smoke investigation" in the Black Forest area.
Firefighters rushed in to help. The radio erupted as engines alerted dispatch they were headed to the area.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa was listening to radio communication that day. He expected a call that the fire was out. It didn't come.
"The fire was growing," said Maketa.
He headed to Black Forest.
Fire Chief Bob Harvey with the Black Forest Fire Department was initially in charge of fighting the flames. Every time a wildfire grows, it's passed from the local fire department to the sheriff's office to the state. Each time the fire is transferred to higher command, more resources open up to battle it.
"It's opening a conduit to get that air support, guard troops, the larger movement of firefighters into the area," said Maketa.
Once Maketa arrived, he asked Harvey if he would like to pass command to the county because he could see the fire was spreading quickly.
"He (Harvey) said, 'No, we got this.' And I said, 'Well, what do you have? I mean, this thing looks pretty big.'"
Maketa took another look at the fire, and asked Harvey again.
"'He (Harvey) said, 'We got it. We got it.' I said, 'Well, you have homes burning.' He said, 'No we don't. No, no, we are alright.' I said, 'No, I'm telling you, you have homes burning. I just saw it with my own eyes.' I said, 'Are you sure you aren't ready to pass it on?' He said, 'Nope, I got it.'"
"It was clear to me, he underestimated, he did not realize how fast the fire had moved. He didn't realize it was up in the trees. He didn't realize homes were burning and that is certainly an indication of when the fire should be passed on," said Maketa.
Maketa said when Harvey became chief, he told Black Forest firefighters he would never transfer a fire in his jurisdiction to the sheriff's office.
"I heard him living up to what he said he was going to do and it is of no benefit to the community," said Maketa. "Egos should never interfere."
KRDO NewsChannel 13 has contacted Harvey and requested interviews since August. He has ignored all requests.
KRDO NewsChannel 13 asked Harvey after a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 21, why he didn't pass the fire to the sheriff's office sooner. Harvey said it wasn't true. He would not answer any other questions.
Scott Campbell is the El Paso County Sheriff's Office fire management officer. He would later become an incident commander for the Black Forest Fire.
"We are just wildland fire," said Campbell. "This is our specialty."
Campbell was one of the first at the fire. Campbell met with Harvey.
"I asked if he wanted to transfer command to the county and he declined. He said that he had it, he was going to get this one and he didn't want to pass," said Campbell.
Campbell kept records of his attempts to take control of the fire from Harvey.
"Black forest is not, they are retaining command so it's still their fire," said Campbell in a recorded phone conversation on June 11 to dispatch.
Campbell has been in charge of fighting wildfires since 1996. In almost two decades, no fire department has held onto a fire after he's asked to take command.
"It was confusing," said Campbell.
Harvey would eventually hand over command at 3:55 p.m., two hours after the initial radio dispatch at 1:43 p.m.
This story is the first of a three part series airing on KRDO NewsChannel 13 at 10 p.m. this week. The investigation will air in its entirety on KRDO NewsChannel 13 at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 30.