COLORADO SPRINGS – As two people remain missing from the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, state and community leaders have expressed relief there are not more, after more than 30,000 people had to flee their neighborhood.
“It is just remarkable that in a fire of this speed and size in the area it was, that there are only two people missing,” Governor Jared Polis said during a press conference Monday.
In many cases, people had just a few minutes to grab what they could in Boulder County and try to get to safety.
Those evacuation efforts have renewed a push from some concerned citizens about the city of Colorado Springs plan for evacuation.
“There was gridlock in [The Waldo Canyon Fire],” said Bill Wysong, “My daughter was caught in it, I was caught in it.”
Wysong was evacuated during the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 and is now president of the group Westside Watch, a conglomeration of people living on the west side of Colorado Springs concerned about growth as it related to evacuation routes.
Wysong worries that many people who live in areas prone to fire near the foothills are unaware of the risks and preparation needed.
“They haven’t experienced it, they don’t know about what they have prepared ready to go and so, I think the city is too complacent,” Wysong said.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Randy Royal was one of the first to respond to the Waldo Canyon Fire when he was a battalion chief when the fire started.
He says the Waldo Evacuation was a success as the only two people to die in the fire refused evacuation orders.
“Our expectation is if we put you in an evacuation order, it’s now. It’s not an hour from now, it’s not two hours from now, it’s now,” Royal said.
Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Office of Emergency Management has created a plan for different evacuation or shelter-in-place scenarios. Wysong and his group want the city to provide maps for people to plug in their address and use modeling to project what evacuation times could look like.
“Look at what happened in the Marshall Fire. It got started and boom, it traveled so fast so you have to plan for the worst and that’s our concern,” Wysong said.
Royal sees the factors that fueled the Marshall Fire as an “extreme” situation, given its location, the brush-like environment, drought conditions and wind speed.
“It’s an extreme event,” Royal said. “When you’re dealing with 100 mile-per-hour winds and fire that’s a really bad situation, and it’s not one that really any community can prepare for.”
That being said, he says they have several things to prepare. Because the Fire Department is fighting the fire and trying to stay in between the public and the flames, the police department is the agency responsible for evacuations.
Royal says Colorado Springs Police Department has the routes for various neighborhoods to leave and says evacuation models are just one of several tools they use to prepare for an evacuation situation since the models often leave out several critical fires.
“The actual evacuation modeling takes a look at how many people are coming out on certain streets,” Royal said. “It doesn’t take into the account of the weather. That’s one of our concerns is that we have to have the weather factors, and that’s what’s going to make a difference in timing and speeds and those types of things.”
Drought and other climate factors are also not included in the models.
Regardless of what the city has on the books, Royal says it does take some level of forethought and responsibility for people living in fire prone areas and that it’s on people to look at several ways out of their neighborhood in the case of disaster.
“Each individual should have some individual responsibility to be able to look at a map and figure out, ‘Here are the ways I’m going to get out,’ and go over it with their families. We do the same thing with homes,” Royal said. “We ask everybody to have at least two ways out of their home. We don’t go to their house and say this is the way you’re going to go out and this is the way you’re going to go out.”
Royal says the Colorado Springs Fire Department and CSPD are acquiring an advanced emergency notification system that will make emergency notifications quicker and more efficient.