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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.

16 Comments »

  1. NBC TV did report that the fire was caused by a controlled burn getting out of hand, and that the authorities had apologized profusely.

    I fear that events like this will become even more common as extreme weather increases.

    • The destroyed homes have owners. The owners presumably have insurance. But the insurance companies will balk and try to get the state to pay. Colorado does not carry such insurance (the rationale has something to do with not spending taxpayers’ money on insurance that they could buy themselves). Frankly, I had trouble following the explanation, but the gist of it was that there is going to be quite a hassle. As for liability for the deaths of two, maybe three people, I don’t know how that works. The fire was not natural; a case can be made that it was carelessness or negligence on the part of some forest sevice workers. Surely the families of the dead are owed some compensation from someone.

      • But PT, the government employees responsible for the misjudgment, the error or whatever you want to call it are merely the agents for the general public, and as such I assume they are not personally liable. Therefore, as Ima says, it wouldn’t be justice to make all pay for the goof. I think it is a case of s**t happens.

        Come to think of it, if you did have a law mandating that the state government pay for brushfire damage, it would be a lot like the EMTALA law as it relates to healthcare.

        • No, I didn’t mean the individual workers would be liable. But wouldn’t their agency somehow be liable for damage for a fire they started? Oh well, I guess it’s like the deal where you can’t sue the federal government without their permission.

          Hey, you’re right. There is a sort of parallet with the EMTALA thing. Wait … well, I saw it there for a second.

        • No, no, PT, you’re missing the point. The government doesn’t have any money of their own. None. They only have other people’s money. To say an agency is “liable” is equivalent to saying that every taxpayer in the state is “liable” for the error.

        • With all due respect Jim, that’s not at all what I meant to imply.

          Claiming that a victim of theft is responsible for the negligent way the thief spent their ill gotten gains is something I’d probably never do.

    • Common sense appears to be anything but. Not only in this particular situation but broadly speaking across our society. Common sense and common decency seem to be in increasingly short supply.

"Nothing is more dangerous than ignorance and intolerance armed with power." ~ Voltaire

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