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Sheriff's Office needed Black Forest fire chief's help, but didn't get it

Black Forest Investigation Part 2

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - There are questions in the ashes of Colorado's most destructive wildfire. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office and first responders question judgement calls made by the Black Forest fire chief during the critical initial hours of the fire.

The best way to win a fire fight is to overwhelm it at the start. It's advice Colorado Springs firefighters and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office can agree on.

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.

On Tuesday, June 11, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa wanted Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey to pass command of the growing wildfire to his office. Maketa said Harvey didn't do it during the critical first hours of the fire.

"There is absolutely no reason to not jump on it with everything you can bring to the battle and that is calling in every resource you have," said Maketa.

The first alert of the fire came over the radio at 1:43 p.m. that day. At 3:55 p.m., Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey turned management of the fire to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. The sheriff immediately passed command to the state.

"Had we gotten the resources and had we gotten to jump on it as quickly as we would have liked to, we would have still lost homes, we would have still lost a lot of timber, but there is a belief that we wouldn't have seen the devastation that we witnessed," said Maketa. "I'm not saying it's all on him, or the fact that he didn't delegate, I'm just saying, you have to be aggressive."

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.

Campbell still needed Harvey's help after he passed command to the Sheriff's Office.

"Scott told him, 'Let's meet at the incident command post down on Shoup, and lets start finding out where our resources are, what we have, get some organization to this,'" said Maketa.

Campbell said Harvey left the Incident Command Post that was set up at Shoup and Howells Roads. Campbell and the team in charge of planning the firefight needed Harvey's help to piece together the day's events in order to plan how to fight the growing fire.

"It would have made the process so much quicker and safer had we had his collaboration," said Campbell.

Moving forward, the fire planning team had four meetings during their 12-hour rotation at 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 10 p.m, and 6 a.m. to formulate an attack plan. Harvey's absence was conspicuous.

"He was not present at any of those meetings," said Campbell.

"I saw Scott many times, I never saw Chief Harvey with him, I never saw him around the command post and didn't see him for two days," said Maketa.

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.

"That's not true," said Harvey.

Campbell kept record of his requests to Harvey to pass the fire to the Sheriff's Office. When KRDO NewsChannel 13 told Harvey the Sheriff's Office had records of the attempts to take command, he responded "Nope they don't."

Colorado Springs Fire Department Battalion Chief Larry Schwarz oversaw Colorado Springs Fire Department, CSFD, resources initially deployed to the Black Forest Fire.

Schwarz said the fire was an instant ignition.

"We needed to get to it and see the fire and hit it hard and hit it fast and that was our goal," said Schwarz.

One Colorado Springs firefighter told KRDO NewsChannel 13 that Harvey told Schwarz he didn't need CSFD's help to fight the fire.

Schwarz would not answer the question when asked if it was true.

"I think you can talk to Bob Harvey to find out about that," said Schwarz.

KRDO NewsChannel 13 has requested an interview to talk with Harvey about his conversation with Schwarz since August. He has denied all requests for an interview.

This story is the second 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.

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