Sheriff, Colorado Springs firefighter say there are 'what ifs' in wake of Black Forest Fire
The El Paso County Sheriff and a Colorado Springs Battalion Chief said there are a lot of 'what ifs' in the wake of the Black Forest Fire.
The Black Forest Fire started on June 11 in northern El Paso County. The first radio dispatch alerted firefighters of a "fire smoke investigation" at 1:43 p.m.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office said it wanted to call in big resources to fight the flames from the start, but it had to wait. It needed Black Forest Fire Chief Bob Harvey to pass off command of the fire. Procedure required Harvey to pass command of the fire to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in order to get more resources. It took more than two hours.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department showed up to help, but it had a difficult time reaching the Black Forest fire chief. A Colorado Springs firefighter said Harvey told CSFD he didn't need its help.
Larry Schwarz was the Colorado Springs Fire Department battalion chief who oversaw CSFD's resources during the initial hours of the fire. When asked if Harvey told CSFD he didn't need it's help, Schwarz would not answer the question.
"I think you can talk to Bob Harvey to find out about that," said Schwarz.
Schwarz remembers the flames, the smoke and communication problems during the initial hours of the fire.
"We need to work better with our county partners," said Schwarz.
In a report written by Colorado Springs firefighter Glenn Conklin, he said CSFD engine 19 tried multiple times to contact Black Forest Fire without success. According to the report, the Wescott fire chief was also unable to contact the Black Forest fire chief.
In a report written by Schwarz, he said CSFD worked on a different radio channel after his firefighters' failed attempts to reach Harvey. Schwarz said in the report CSFD would stay on the different radio channel until it could unify with command.
"If we had unified earlier, we may have seen different outcome to some level. It doesn't mean we wouldn't have lost the same amount of houses, but who knows," said Schwarz.
Schwarz said the working relationship between CSFD and the Black Forest Fire Department wasn't the best when the wildfire broke out in June. He said there have been "bridges burned" between the two departments during the last 29 years.
"Sometimes pride may get in the way of truly what the fire service is all about," said Schwarz.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Christopher Riley declined an interview to discuss the relationship.
Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District also responded during the initial hours of the Black Forest Fire. Fire Chief Chris Truty agreed to an interview to discuss the way resources were used during the first hours of the fire. Truty later canceled.
"If you have any questions regarding Tri-Lakes Monument FPD's participation in the Black Forest fire, please contact Chief Harvey at Black Forest," said Truty in an email.
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, when he would do an interview to discuss the way resources were used during the initial hours of the fire.
"I probably won't," said Harvey.
There are a lot of 'what ifs' in the ashes of Colorado's most destructive wildfire.
"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 El Paso County Sheriff Terry 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."
Communication between the Black Forest Fire Department and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office needs work.
There is room for improvement in the relationship between the Black Forest fire chief and neighboring fire departments.
"There were some leadership challenges. Whose district is it? Oh, is it city? Is it county? Very territorial. And we need to get over that. It's the pride issue. We are all on the same mission, let's be on the same mission," said Schwarz.
This story is the third of a three-part series airing on KRDO NewsChannel 13 at 10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The investigation will air in its entirety on KRDO NewsChannel 13 at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 30.
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