High Park Fire forum: nine of 10 worst-case scenarios happened, yet agencies hung together

In the first few days of the High Park Fire, firefighters were “were overwhelmed….and then overwhelmed….and then overwhelmed again,” said Tony Simons, Larimer County Emergency Specialist. “By the end of the second day, nine of out 10 of our worst case scenarios had happened.”

Simons was one of four panelists participating in “The High Park Fire: A Community Responds,” hosted by the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. The panel discussion was the first of six public forums, each focusing on a different aspect of the fire.

The High Park Fire raged for three weeks in June 2012. By the time containment was achieved by multiple local, state and federal agencies, one person had been killed, 259 homes were destroyed and more than 87,000 acres had burned.

Joining Simons in the Jan. 15 forum were: Bill Hahnenberg, Federal Type I Incident Commander for the High Park Fire; Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Gann; and former Poudre Canyon Volunteer Fire Protection District Chief Carl Solley.

The panelists commented on a variety of topics, from the logistics of the fire to the lessons learned in its aftermath. In the 1½-hour discussion, three themes kept echoing: the complexity of the High Park Fire, the cooperation of the multiple agencies, and the community’s support for the firefighters and personnel.

“What made this fire different was its size and its ferocity due to the weather,” Gann said. “On day 14, the fire blew through 11,000 more acres and burned two more homes.”

“From an operational standpoint, the interagency partnerships were of huge value and benefit,” Simons said. “There were no jurisdictional issues or turf wars. It’s a team effort; each person is critical.”

Typically, communication is the first thing to break down during a fire, Solley said, “Coordination with outside agencies is very important.”

Gann also touted the agencies’ ability to work together. “Your roles change and you have to be flexible,” he said. “Egos need to stay at home.”

Finally, community support proved vital for those fighting the fire. “It was emotionally taxing to see friends and neighbors losing homes,” Solley said.

But by the second day, cheering citizens lined the roads leading into the fire zone, Simons said. “And it never stopped. The support of the community was absolutely amazing.”

“I don’t think people realize how much they helped,” Gann said. “I felt everybody was taking care of me.”

The next forum, “Forests, Landscapes, and Changing Realities,” will be held at the museum beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 12. Each forum is open to the public, free of charge, although registration is required (go to fcmod.org). The forums will also be broadcast on Cable 14, the city of Fort Collins’ public access channel.

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