Priority on communicating with homeowners set by Forest Service, Larimer County during High Park Fire

At the high point of the High Park Fire, more than 2,000 personnel from all over the nation were battling the blaze alongside local firefighters with massive air support. Coordinating all the moving parts effectively while keeping residents and the general public safe and informed was equally challenging.

Thanks to lessons learned over the years, Larimer County, the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest and the Colorado State Forest Service had working protocols in place when the first federal incident command team arrived on June 10.

“We’ve been working together for 10 years, since the Bobcat Gulch Fire,” explained Reghan Cloudman of the national forest. “We’re really fortunate to have the relationship we do with Larimer County.”

Local firefighting agencies all have standing mutual aid agreements. Those agreements allowed Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District and Poudre Fire Authority to respond without hesitation to Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department’s initial call for assistance on June 9. When the fire blew up from a local Type 3 to a federal Type 1 fire later that day, a more detailed outline of responsibilities kicked in.

Cloudman said the service executes a Delegation of Authority for every fire on national forest land, and just about every fire in the North Forty area has at least the potential to involve the forest. Incident commanders can order resources, such as tanker planes, but can’t take delivery until the Delegation is signed and it is clear who will pay for them.

The Delegation also spells out exactly who is in charge of what. During the High Park Fire, Larimer County Emergency Services was primarily responsible for structure protection, working with local fire departments. The sheriff’s office was in charge of evacuations and road closures, in coordination with CDOT. The U.S. Forest Service was in charge of resources.

“Each Delegation is a little bit different,” Cloudman said. “Agencies can choose what to delegate and what not to.”

What was different in the High Park Fire is that the information function was delegated to Larimer County, specifically the sheriff’s department Executive Officer Nick Christensen, and the county’s Joint Information Center. This is where more than 18,000 phone calls were answered by personnel from all the participating jurisdictions during June.

“Our priorities were informing the residents directly affected by the fire, the rest of the Larimer County community through local media, and then the national media,” said John Schultz, sheriff’s department public information officer. “The federal priorities are usually the other way around.”

That’s why residents who lost homes heard it first at The Ranch, not on the nightly news.

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