Lower North Fork Fire report released

DENVER — The team of specialists tasked with reviewing the state’s prescribed burn that sparked the Lower North Fork wildfire has finished its work and reported on its findings Monday afternoon.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called for the review, along with Colorado State University, which oversees the state Forest Service.

It was, of course, the Colorado Forest Service that decided to go ahead with the prescribed burn, aimed at mitigating the fire risk in the area, which ultimately led to the wildfire.

Three people died in the fire. Two dozen homes were damaged or destroyed.

“This prescribed fire review is one step toward a better understanding of what happened before the Lower North Fork fire escaped,” Hickenlooper said.

The report lists a number of factors that led to escape of the prescribed fire:
— Hot spots from the fire remained four days after the initial burn
— Normal best practices, including a 200-foot buffer around the burn, didn’t work
— Weather and fire behavior forecasts did not sufficiently predict the complete set of circumstances
— Rapidly escalating winds created spot firs that exceeded what firefighters on the ground could handle

The report also outlines a number of recommendations for the state and other agencies to consider:
— Improve weather information and fire-danger rating systems to make sure fire management agencies have accurate data
— Improve Colorado State Forest Service mop-up standards to make sure prescribed burns don’t re-ignite
— Consider using technical reviewer for more complex prescribed burns, especially those covering multiple jurisdictions

Read the full report here

Questions surfaced about how to ensure accountability and coordination between the Colorado State Forest Service and the state’s Division of Emergency Management during wildfires.

“We must ensure that going forward we have one central point for authority over wildfire coordination at the state level,” Hickenlooper said.

State agencies and CSU will work together to review and make recommendations to improve emergency response capabilities.

Hickenlooper, U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman are sending a letter to the U.S. Forest Service seeking a federal review of the Lower North Fork Fire.

William Bass, who led the review, is a  35-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service. His review assessed the planning, protocols and execution of the prescribed fire and the key factors that led to the fire’s escape, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

The review included data collection, weather information, interviews of personnel involved and an assessment of the preparation for the prescribed fire conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service in late March, according to the release.