Waldo Canyon Fire: Could more have been done?

The current view from the Flying W Ranch.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Four years ago, on June 26, 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire exploded.

It had been burning for three days, but until that Tuesday no structures had been lost.

In the next few hours, the blaze would grow more than 10,000 acres, claiming the lives of two people and burning 346 homes.

In the following months and years, multiple investigations into the fire would be conducted to answer the question “could more have been done?”

Years later, the answer is still up for debate.

For the first time since the blaze, firefighter Steven Thime returns to the Flying W Ranch.

“It’s a sick-to-my-stomach feeling when I come back here,” he said.

The day before the fire crested the mountain, Thime’s job was to put in a dozer line.

“The point of a dozer line is you basically pick a spot where you want to draw a line in the sand, for lack of a better term,” he said.

Captain C.J. Nauert was also working on that task.

“[A] dozer line can be anywhere from about 10 to 14 feet wide. What you try to do is put in that and then get crews to burn into it, improve it, widen it, make it better, harder, take the fuel away from the fire is what you try and do,” said Nauert.

A 2015 case study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology shows that the crew was instructed to build a dozer line “wide enough to light with fuses and hold with a hand pump.”

“So the plan was to eliminate all these fuels and theoretically save the city and Mountain Shadows,” Thime said.

The plan was to burn off the mountain, Thime said. It was a plan he agreed with, based on his 13 years of wildland firefighting experience.

When asked why the burn didn’t happen, Thime said “I honestly don’t know.”

He told his bosses he was ready to complete the back burn but they said no, Thime said.

“They said ‘what do you mean burn it off?’ And I said well that’s what the plan is and they said ‘yeah, we’re not doing that. We’re not going to burn the entire hillside,'” Thime said.

“We were just in the process of putting in contingent lines and just typical stuff that we do and if we would have had the time we could have burned into it and taken the fuel away but we didn’t have the time,” said Nauert.

He agrees with the decision that was made not to burn the hillside.

“You have to predict where it’s going to be and try to take that fuel away from the fire. That fire behavior, that erratic portion of that fire, we were not being able to predict it at that point in time,” he said. “If we put it down here and it’s a couple degrees off of our prediction, we’re wasting a lot of resources, a lot of time.”

Nauert said he couldn’t answer the question of who changed the plans and decided not to complete the back burn.

FOX21 News reached out to then assistant fire chief Tommy Smith, who now works for the Redmond Fire Department in Washington as Chief.

Rich Brown, who was chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department at the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire, also went to work for the same department.

Smith did not return multiple calls and emails asking for an interview or statement.

Thime said hindsight is 20/20 and there’s no way to know if burning the mountainside would have saved Mountain Shadows or the Flying W Ranch.

“This was a historical location for the city, that was a historical event that happened,” Thime said. “What I saw that day, I had never seen previously.”

Both Thime and Nauert agree that CSFD is much more prepared to handle a wildfire now than they were in 2012.

“We have a lot more experience, we have a lot more plans in place,” Nauert said.

It’s likely the department will get another chance at it.

“365 days after this happened, and we never thought this was going to happen, it happened again,” said Thime. “We lost hundreds of more homes and more lives in the Black Forest Fire.”

“Let’s say we lost one-third of our hillside during that fire, so the good news is, we only lost a third of our hillside. Here’s the bad news, we still have two-thirds of the hillside left and it’s going to happen again,” Thime said.

FOX21 News was unable to track down then fire chief Rich Brown and was told he no longer works for the Redmond Fire Department.

FOX21 News also spoke with the one of the owners of the Flying W Ranch, Leigh Ann Wolfe, who said she is upset that more wasn’t done to save the ranch. However, she added they have been focusing on the positives and do still plan to reopen the ranch.

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