Colorado Springs City Council approves wildfire ordinance 9-0 despite opposition


The Colorado Springs City Council unanimously approved a wildfire evacuation planning ordinance Tuesday that residents said did not go far enough and did not incorporate any of their requests.

The new ordinance requires the city fire staff to divide the city into evacuation zones based on roads, topography and other factors and educate the public on those evacuation zones. The city has already purchased the software needed to split the community into evacuation zones and does not need to have an ordinance to do the work outlined in the law, Councilman Bill Murray said. 

Several wildfire safety advocates were highly disappointed after the vote that none of their suggestions were adopted, since their advocacy sparked the ordinance in the first place. 

“Basically what you have been given is a brand new shiny bicycle with no wheels,” resident Donna Strom told City Council. 

Fire Chief Randy Royal said the ordinance would ensure the current standard and work the department is currently doing would continue into the future. 

Most of the council praised the ordinance as success that could be built on in the future. 

“What I believe is that this is better than what we have,” Councilman Wayne Williams said. 

Residents have advocated for better evacuation planning because they are concerned about the length of time it could take to leave their homes west of Interstate 25. Some involved in advocacy were caught for hours in traffic fleeing the Waldo Canyon fire and worked with experts who presented models to the City Council in November showing how long it could take to evacuate certain westside neighborhoods. For example, it could five hours to evacuate the Broadmoor area, including tourists at local attractions, said Mike Robinson, associate research professor at Old Dominion University, a modeling expert. The Broadmoor area, with its narrow and winding roads, could be a worst-case fire scenario for the city. 

Residents asked for an ordinance that requires the city to model how long it could take to leave neighborhoods and designate evacuation routes for hazards coming from all four directions. The draft measure would require the city to post evacuation times and routes online. Their proposal would also require the city to evaluate how new developments could increase evacuation times and require that longer times be addressed through design changes or added roads. 

Council President Tom Strand asked the city Public Works Director Travis Easton if he could evaluate a free tool that residents have asked the city to use to estimate how long it could take residents to leave their homes. Easton agreed, but said he was uncomfortable using the tool because it would be outside the bounds of the standard traffic criteria. The council did not vote on or otherwise formalize Strand’s request. The free tool is paid for by the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

Mayor John Suthers spoke against the measures residents proposed, saying those who choose to live in the wildland-urban interface should be aware of the risk of fire. But if the city evaluated development projects based on how it could impact evacuation times, that could create property rights and equity issues.  

“We understand that while the risk can be mitigated it can never be eliminated,” he said. 

He noted people rebuild in high-risk areas because they want to live there. 

The city spent $74,000 on Zonehaven, a new system the fire department can use to alert residents about evacuations via text, social media and traditional media outlets. Through the new system, which will cost $36,000 annually, the city has identified potentially more than 600 new zones that could be individually evacuated. The city expects to launch a campaign for residents to know their zone starting in August. Smaller evacuation zones can help prevent road congestion. 

Residents said they were not opposed to Zonehaven, but it did have problems during the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif., that killed about 85 people. 

A Los Angeles Times investigation of the Camp fire showed most of the city’s zones never received an order to leave because the “loss of fiber-optic lines and cell towers shut down the warning system completely.” Paradise also never modeled how long it could take to evacuate the whole town. 

Westside Watch founder Dana Duggan called on the city to assess its road network particularly because the evacuation times presented by the experts in November could be much worse in a chaotic fire. 

“We are not anti-development, but we are anti-burning in cars,” she said. 

Councilman Dave Donelson asked if public safety officials had ever asked for a change to the road network following a fire.

“I can’t think of a scenario where a change was made in response to an evacuation,” City Engineer Todd Frisbie said.

Another Westside Watch advocate, Bill Wysong, showed a photo of an evacuation choke point during the Waldo Canyon fire and noted that the FLEET software can identify such choke points ahead of time.  

“Codifying processes and procedures is fine, but it’s not enough,” he said in an interview following the vote.