On the Scene: Wildfire Communication in Colorado

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By Nicole Hawk

An estimated 75,000 wildfires occur in the United States each year, and each one has potential public health concerns including evacuating safely, dealing with smoke, or cleaning up spoiled food after a power outage.  In June 2013, Colorado faced multiple devastating wildfires, including the Royal Gorge Fire in Cañon City, which required the evacuation of a state prison, and the Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs, which became the most destructive in Colorado history.  The 14,000-acre fire forced 38,000 people to evacuate and destroyed almost 500 homes.  Before, during, and after the wildfires, local, state, and federal public information officers (PIOs) worked together to quickly share emergency information via traditional media, social media, and websites such as Inciweb

Smokey the Bear warns of extreme dangerAs with most responses, CDC’s main role is getting information to people before an emergency to help them prepare and after an emergency during the recovery phase to help them protect their physical and emotional health.  As members of CDC’s Joint Information Center (JIC), Joanne Cox and I had the opportunity to travel to Colorado to observe these wildfire information activities.  Understanding how Colorado handled information needs helped us build relationships and find new ways to get CDC information to our partners during a wildfire response.  

We first reached out to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, which put us in touch with Dave Rose, an El Paso County PIO.  Dave welcomed us to the Black Forest Fire JIC in Colorado Springs.  We found the JIC, staffed by county and city PIOs and volunteers, buzzing with activity.   People worked around the clock answering phones, posting evacuation and damage updates to websites and social media, and coordinating public meetings and media interviews. 

wildfire PIO meeting
The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team B gathers for an afternoon command and general staff meeting.

Although this was Joanne’s first time observing a wildfire, she was in good hands.  Before working at CDC, I served as a wildland firefighter and PIO for the U.S. Forest Service.  As a result, Joanne and I were armed with plenty of fire T-shirts, which helped us blend into the crowd of firefighters. By the time our 3-day whirlwind trip was over, we had toured the Black Forest Fire JIC, a wildfire base camp, two incident command posts (ICPs), and the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, and made a lot of new friends in the wildland fire community.   Most importantly, we learned even more about the kinds of information people need and how they can best receive it before, during, and after a wildfire. 

We used CDC’s social media network and real-life connections to make the most of our time in Colorado.  Because CDC’s own @CDCEmergency Twitter handle follows local, state, and federal emergency management agencies, we learned of a public meeting for the Royal Gorge Fire in Cañon City, Colorado.  Our virtual network may have gotten us to the public meeting, but once we arrived, we were fortunate to meet Susan Ford, a liaison officer for the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team B.  She invited us to spend June 14 with the team.  At the ICP, we attended a VIP visit from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper as well as meetings with command and general staff and agency cooperators, including the Fremont County Public Health Agency

Another connection at the Royal Gorge Fire was one from my days in the Forest Service. I worked with Chris Barth, the lead PIO for the fire, on the 2011 Rockhouse fire in Texas.  He put us in contact with the lead PIO for the Black Forest Fire which was managed by the Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management Team.   On June 15, we fortified ourselves with coffee and attended the 6:00 a.m. briefing at the Black Forest fire ICP, where we met the Incident Commander, Rick Harvey.  It was another action-packed day of observing live media interviews, a press conference, and lots of communication activities. 

Joanne Cox gets a tour of the Royal Gorge Fire incident command post from Susan Ford, a liaison officer on the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team B.

Shane Greer, an incident commander for the Royal Gorge fire, helped snag us an invitation to visit the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood, CO.  The Geographic Area Coordination Center works with the National Interagency Fire Center to mobilize wildland fire resources across Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming and maintains a big-picture view of fire activity by analyzing information, maps, weather forecasts, GIS files, and data from fire modeling software.   While observing a morning coordination call, we got a taste of how information flows from the national to the regional to the local level. 

We learned a lot about how information was shared on Colorado’s wildfires and made many valuable connections to the wildland fire community. Now we are even better equipped to help the JIC share CDC wildfire information with PIOs, partners, the media, and most importantly, with local communities.

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Page last reviewed: August 14, 2013
Page last updated: August 14, 2013