BLACK FOREST, Colo. - The controversy surrounding the Black Forest Fire/Rescue Protection District chief's response to the wildfire last June is heating up again.
Wednesday, the district released a summary of their investigation into Fire Chief Bob Harvey. They declined to release the full report until receiving approval from the El Paso County District Attorney, citing a desire to avoid interference with any potential criminal investigations.
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa had previously accused Harvey of mishandling the first hours of the deadly, devastating fire. In a Facebook post, the sheriff said the chief did not know homes were burning and failed to request evacuations in a timely manner.
The Black Forest Fire, in June, caused $85 million in damage and is considered the most destructive fire in Colorado history. Two residents died in the firestorm that destroyed 511 structures. Among them, 488 homes.
Despite the allegations from the sheriff, the Fire/Rescue District said their internal investigation found "no professional misconduct on the part of the Chief."
The district's statement about the investigation also said, "It verifies the faith we had in our Chief, and in the principles that have guided this organization, regardless of the events of last summer, and indeed, the distractions over the past few months."
David Fisher, a retired Greenwood Village police commander, was hired by the district to conduct the internal investigation. In turn, he hired South Metro Fire Rescue Authority alumnus David Daley to assist.
In the summary of the report, the district carefully pointed out that the two investigators acted independently.
Later in the statement, the district argues that the allegations have done needless harm to its reputation and wasted taxpayer money. It also acknowledged a gap between the fire district and the El Paso County government and called for "responsible leadership to step forward."
The key excerpt from the summary of the report blames the weather for causing the fire to grow out of control, not mismanagement:
"During the initial response to the fire, recently obtained photographs indicate that at 2:10 p.m. this fire was a low, crawling fire. Within 6-7 minutes, the weather changed dramatically with high winds, and subsequently became an out of control 'crown' fire that could not be contained during the several days following the start of the fire. Regardless of the conduct and tactics of fire personnel and command, which the report indicates were heroic and laudable, conditions at the time and in subsequent days allowed the fire to continue unabated."
During a news conference Wednesday, Fisher said the first crew was on the scene six minutes after the first call.
He said there had been a call for mutual aid and that other departments quickly responded.
Maj. Gen. Ed Bracken (Ret.) the fire district’s board chairman said there were some issues with maps and radios but that fire crews managed to get where they needed to be in spite of those issues.
He said no resources were turned away, but did say some couldn’t be used because the wind driven fire was posing a danger to human life in some areas.
-- SHERIFF'S OFFICE RESPONDS TO BLACK FOREST FIRE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION --
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has reviewed the executive summary containing the findings of the independent investigator that the Black Forest Fire District Board hired in December 2013 to determine if Black Forest Fire Chief Harvey mismanaged the Black Forest Fire during its early stages. The summary is general in nature and omits many specific times of significant actions and events. The decision to launch such an inquiry rests with the Board and the results are an internal matter surrounding an employee of the Black Forest Fire Department. It is not necessary for the Sheriff’s Office to comment on any employee related decisions the Board may or may not make as a result of the inquiry.
The Sheriff’s Office would be remise however to not address several inaccuracies in this report concerning actual timelines for specific actions and events that took place during the first few hours of the fire on June 11, 2013. A full timeline including radio transmissions was posted on the Sheriff’s Office web site within the first few months of the fire. Today, the Sheriff’s Office has now posted a copy of the Black Forest Fire Board Executive Summary of this investigation and excerpts from this summary in contrast with actual radio transmissions and dispatch timelines that refute the accuracy of this report. Furthermore, the investigator states that Assistant Fire Marshal Scott Campbell declined to interview with the investigator however email documents between Sheriff Maketa and the investigator reveal the Sheriff requested questions from the investigator that Mr. Campbell could answer and those questions were never received. This is another example of the inaccuracies reported by this investigator.
To address the question as to why Sheriff Maketa made such allegations about Chief Harvey’s performance of duty was in direct response to Chief Harvey’s interference with an official investigation into the cause and origin of this fire by his inappropriate and irresponsible statement that the fire was most likely deliberately or intentionally started without any evidence or facts to substantiate such a statement and is another glaring example of his irresponsible actions.
To any extent the Board’s internal investigation deviates from its original intent and speaks to the fire investigation on topics like cause or origin, Sheriff Terry Maketa reminds members of the community his Office is conducting the official investigation. Once all scientific analysis of items of evidence is complete, and all investigative efforts have been concluded, the Sheriff’s Office will eagerly provide information to the public. The information released by the Sheriff’s Office will be grounded by facts and evidence and will withstand the scrutiny of the court if necessary.
It is unfortunate that this report contains many opinions and general information not based on facts that can be substantiated by actual evidence such as radio transmissions and recorded phone calls. Therefore, it is important that the public has the opportunity to review the report and actual evidence so they can form their own conclusions and may refer to El Paso County Sheriff’s Office website http://bit.ly/1oTDYLK to review all of this information.
-- BLACK FOREST RESIDENTS SAY INVESTIGATION RESULTS ARE NO SURPRISE
Several Black Forest residents attended the special Fire District Board meeting and applauded the board chairman when he said that it’s time to heal the community and to create a culture of working together.
Some residents who lost homes in the fire say the best way to begin working together is with a fresh start.
Rozanne David’s son lost his home in the inferno. When asked if she has faith in the chief, David replied, “I think it would be good if we had a change just because of doubts that people might have and everything that’s happened.”
David also said it might be time to replace the board.