2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
  • Yarnell Fire becomes one of the deadliest in history for firefighters

    Mon, July 1, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Bill Gabbert, author of the blog “Wildfire Today” and a former wildland firefighter,  put together a look at the deadliest fires in history, to help readers put the Yarnell Fire in perspective.

    Deaths while fighting wildland fire, sadly, are not uncommon. But Gabbert points out that the number of firefighters who died in Arizona, 19, is a tragic, rare occurrence.

    But as many as 19 being killed at one time has not happened since October 3, 1933, when 25 firefighters were entrapped and killed while fighting a fire in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The only other incident with more than 19 wildland firefighter fatalities occurred on the “Big Blowup Fires” of August 21, 1910 when 72 firefighters died in Idaho.

    Gabbert’s blog post gives a round-up of the deadliest fires in history, using data from the National Interagency Fire Center.  The Storm King Mountain incident, which killed 14 smokejumpers near Glenwood Springs in 1994 is on the list.

    Read Gabbert’s post here.

    Also, read this post to learn more about what happens when firefighters are trapped by flame.


  • FedEx awards grant to wildfire recovery group

    Tue, May 21, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    In honor of a $30,000 grant from FedEx to the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), a non-profit group helping with wildfire recovery here, FedEx workers and CUSP volunteers will be working together in the Waldo Canyon burn scar this Friday on flood mitigation projects.

    From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday some Colorado Springs firefighters will join the volunteer efforts, which will focus on removing debris from flood paths, filling and placing sandbags,  and planting grass seeds within the Waldo Canyon burn scar.  This is the second restoration project for local FedEx employees–last week, FedEx workers volunteered with Rocky Mountain Field Institute with burn scar rehabilitation, as well.

    CUSP has several projects going on this week that need volunteers. All you have to do visit the group’s website and register for one of the projects, including the FedEx event on Friday.



  • Chipping in northwest Colorado Springs next week

    Fri, May 17, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    The Colorado Springs Fire Department chipping crew will be hitting the streets of the Hunters Point, Oak Valley, Comstock, Perfect View and Northface neighborhoods next week to offer chipping services.

    Chipping services are free and are meant to grind up the refuse of wildfire mitigation. So, if you’ve cut down any trees, shrubbery or trimmed branches all in the name of wildfire mitigation, sign up for the chipper.

    Go here to sign up for chipping services. If you’d like to know if your home is in a wildfire danger zone, check out this map. You can also call 719-385-7342 to set up a chipping appointment and ask questions.



  • If you were a wildland firefighter…

    Tue, April 30, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    You’d probably surf the Internet just like everybody else.

    But you’d also probably spend some time on these three websites:

    1. Inciweb.

    Used by the U.S. Forest Service, and other land agencies, to post updates on wildfire incidents around the county. Those of us who watched the Waldo Canyon fire are pretty familiar with this site–a great place to fire updates on acres, damages, and how many firefighters are involved in wildfires . You can also get maps, photos, useful phone numbers and other tidbits about fires near you.

    2. National Interagency Fire Center’s “Sit” Report (for April 26)

    “Sit” stands for situational–this is a long list of all the current fire activity around the country, monitored by the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. You can see how many fires are burning in your region (for us in the Rocky Mountain area, there are six fires burning right now). As fires season picks up, these updates should be more frequent. Not quite as user friendly as InciWeb, but still an interesting wrap-up.

    Take a look at the regional breakdown of the United States.

    3. Wildfire Today

    Run by longtime wildland firefighter and former president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, Bill  Gabbert, this wildfire blog has a stellar mix of wildfire data and inside “trade” secrets for those non-firefighting types out there.

    Anything that remotely, or intimately, concerns the world of wildfires–Gabbert’s got it on his blog. He also runs a separate blog for fire aviation, Fire Aviation, that’s a great guide to all things air tanker.




  • Cigarettes and wildfires, round two

    Thu, April 25, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Yesterday I wrote about a U.S. Forest Service study that correlates a decrease in cigarette smokers to a decrease in wildfires caused by cigarettes. The study did not claim that the two were connected, but just noted that the trajectory of both–fewer smokers, fewer forest service fires–could be related.

    Reader Pete Vanvuren, who is a wildland firefighter, sent me this email in response:

    “I would have to say that the two are most likely unrelated.  When a fire ignites near a road, people are pretty quick to jump to the assumption that ‘it must have been started by a cigarette tossed out a car window’.  It is actually much more likely that such a fire was started by sparks from a lose tow chain dragging on the road, etc.  There are very specific conditions of temperature, RH (Relative Humidity), available fuels, etc and then there are the outside variables of altitude, wind conditions, etc. that are required to get a tossed cigarette to actually start a fire…If there is a correlation between the cigarettes and wildland fires, I would suggest it have to do with the more common use of lower ignition propensity cigarettes.”

    So, a lot of factors and “etcs.” when it comes to fire ignitions.  Pete’s point seems to be that getting a cigarette to start a fire is not as easy as one would suppose.

    I set out to answer that–exactly how does a cigarette start a fire? And what on earth is a “lower ignition propensity” cigarette?

    For question one, I talked to Sara McAllister,  a research mechanical engineer at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Station’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont.

    “Cigarettes burn in smoldering combustion mode,” McAllister said. “Even though you don’t see flames, it’s still hot.”

    Cigarettes burn at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry grass only needs to be about 650 degrees to ignite–so a cigarette could do that easily. But, after a fire lights, how can you guarantee that the fire will spread? It all depends on the day, McAllister said.

    “There are a lot of variables– fuel, weather, topography, all of the usual concerns from any ignition source,” she said.

    Now, for question two: What is  a low ignition propensity cigarette and why would it make a difference when it comes to wildfire/fire ignition?

    For that, I spoke with Kristine Van Cleve, the Colorado Division of Fire Safety ‘s Fire Safe Cigarettes and Data Specialist.

    Low ignition propensity cigarettes need to be inhaled for them to burn, essentially.  If someone is not inhaling, then the cigarette will burn down to a certain point and snuff out.

    “It’s kind of a safe guard, if they don’t inhale and it gets to that then it just puts the cigarette out,” Van Cleve explained. All cigarettes in Colorado are officially required to have a low ignition propensity certification, Van Cleve added.

    So, if you fall asleep  while smoking a low propensity cigarette, in theory it should go out before you come to any harm. In theory as well,  if the cigarette gets tossed out a window into a patch of tinder-dry grass, it should snuff out.

    McAllister, on the other hand, had never heard of such a cigarette.






  • VIDEO: Captain Steve Riker, voice of the Waldo Canyon fire

    Thu, April 4, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Captain Steve Riker was one of the three rotating Incident Commanders for the Colorado Springs Fire Department during the Waldo Canyon fire.

    He was working the night of June 26, when the fire blew into Mountain Shadows and destroyed 347 homes, and because of that Fire Chief Rich Brown has dubbed him “the voice of the Waldo Canyon fire.”

    Riker’s radio transmissions from that night were picked up by local residents and media organizations across the county.  Read about the night Riker watched the Waldo Canyon fire blow into Colorado Springs.

    On Wednesday, Riker spoke at a city of Colorado Springs  news conference on the release of its final after action report of the fire.  His voice started to crack as he recalled sending his friends, family and colleagues into the flames to inspect the fire damage.

    Watch a video of  Riker as he recalls the firestorm.


  • City to release final Waldo Canyon fire review on Wednesday

    Tue, April 2, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    The city of Colorado Springs will release its final review of the Waldo Canyon fire on Wednesday morning, according to a news release.

    The final Waldo Canyon Fire After Action Review will be posted on the city’s website www.springsgov.com and available to the public at 8:30 a.m. Mayor Steve Bach, along with Police Chief Pete Carey and Fire Chief Rich Brown, will discuss the review during a news conference at 11 a.m.

    The release of the review comes nearly six months after the city put together an initial after action report, released on Oct. 23, which was a basic summary of the fire and listed strengths and a few pitfalls. The final after action review is expected to be a break-down by department of procedures during the fire, offering critiques or suggestions for improvement.

    This final review will join a few others that have been released over the past few months.

    Read about some other perspectives of the Waldo Canyon fire:

    City of Woodland Park After Action Report

    City of Colorado Springs Initial After Action Report

    Fire Adapted Communities: Lessons Learned from Waldo Canyon

    The Waldo Canyon Fire: Fires on the Colorado Front Range and Home Destruction

    Moving toward a Fire Adapted Community

  • Colorado Springs first testing ground for Fire Adapted Communities

    Wed, March 27, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    The Waldo Canyon fire provided the first case-study for Fire Adapted Communities, a U.S. Forest Service fire mitigation program, and the findings were released last week in a report.

    For Mountain Shadows and Cedar Heights residents, much of the study’s results will sound familiar–many homes were destroyed or damaged by embers, and home-to-home ignition was common in places where homes were packed closely together.

    Read the report here.   And check out this video about the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Mitigation Section.

  • Fire Department gets 325 new brush shirts

    Wed, March 20, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    In the wildland firefighting world, few things say “experienced” like a thoroughly soiled brush shirt.

    Brand new fire-resistant brush shirts were recently handed out all firefighters in the Colorado Springs Fire Department–and they are bright yellow, usually the hallmark of a rookie, or someone who hasn’t yet been able to cover the shirt with the sweat, dirt and soot of a wildfire.

    The garb for fighting a wildfire is different from what one might find on the backs of structural fire fighters. It usually involves a bright yellow fire-resistant button-down shirt, and a pair of sturdy, fire-resistant pants.  The shirts and pants are lighter weight, and ideal for battling flames in extreme heat. And soiling the shirt during a wildfire can be a right of passage, firefighters say.

    In October, the fire department won a grant from the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation for pay for 325 shirts for the entire department. The fire department has had the shirts for a while, but officially unveiled the acquisition on Wednesday, said Sunny Smaldino, a fire department spokeswoman. The shirts are worth more than $19,000.

    Even if the shirts are somewhat alarmingly yellow, firefighters are grateful to have them, Smaldino added.

    “They would rather have them bright and shinny, rather than have to deal with what we dealt with last year,” Smaldino said, referring to the Waldo Canyon fire.