Three days after a burning wood-chip pile at Casper’s landfill ignited a wildfire that destroyed 14 homes, the city’s fire chief asked one of his inspectors to eliminate “bad parts” of video evidence being sought by state authorities.
Chief Kenneth King made the request via email as the Cole Creek Fire continued to burn in rural Evansville. The fire had escaped the landfill property about 20 hours after city firefighters responded to the blaze. Before it was extinguished, the wildfire charred about 10,000 acres and killed livestock and pets.
“Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?” King wrote in an Oct. 14 email to Devin Garvin, a city fire inspector tasked with collecting evidence related to the fire and sharing it with state authorities.
In an interview, King said he sent the email as a joke to someone he considers a friend, and he admits now that it was in poor taste. The Star-Tribune attempted to corroborate King’s explanation, but Garvin declined to speak with a reporter. He referred questions to city attorney Bill Luben, who declined to participate in an interview.
The email was one of more than 1,000 turned over to the Star-Tribune as part of public records requests made this spring and summer. The documents, combined with hours of interviews, give the clearest picture yet of how firefighters responded to the fire at the landfill, which began one year ago Monday. They also suggest city officials may have been concerned the fire would spark legal action and took steps to limit discussion and review of what had taken place. There was reason for officials to be worried -- the city now faces more than $1.7 million in claims related to the fire.
The emails show firefighters reacted quickly to the Oct. 10 fire but that most left the landfill within hours, even as the piles continued to burn. Fire officials sought to contain rather than extinguish the blaze, leaving a two-man crew to tend to the fire overnight. More units were called in when winds picked up the next day, but they were unable to confine the blaze to the landfill.
A state investigation later found the fire began in a machine used to grind wood from the landfill’s brush pile. Workers had earlier that day tried to extinguish the smoldering debris and believed they’d succeeded. Instead, the debris ignited piles of wood chips.
The investigation focused on the fire’s origins but did not draw conclusions as to whether negligence by city workers caused or contributed to the Cole Creek Fire. That question will likely be answered through litigation.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze six days after the wood chips ignited. In the weeks after the fire, a directive circulated within city government encouraging officials, including King, to stop using email to discuss the fire. Such correspondence could be obtained via public records laws.
And the fire department’s administration did not hold a debriefing, what officials call an after-action review, on the fire based on the advice from a city attorney, fire officials say. Informal conversations related to the fire may have taken place, officials said, but they declined to say what, if anything, they learned from the experience.
“I’m not at liberty to share that,” King told the Star-Tribune.
‘The bad parts’
When King emailed Garvin to remove the “bad parts” from the landfill footage on Oct. 14, crews were still working to extinguish the fire. By then, the fire had temporarily displaced about 1,000 people living in a rural community east of Casper. Fourteen families lost their homes. Others lost livestock fences, workshops and equipment.
Investigators had already begun studying what caused the fire. Two days before King sent the email, on Oct. 12, authorities announced the State Fire Marshal’s office would lead the investigation.
Garvin, the emails show, was responsible for helping collect evidence. He served as a liaison of sorts between the fire department and state investigators, working with both the fire marshal’s office and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
Garvin collected video footage shot by firefighters, as well as their written narratives. He also served as the city’s point of contact for private fire investigators, helping them gather information.
In his interview with the Star-Tribune, King said he wanted to keep the investigation “as independent as possible.” Garvin, he explained, would provide whatever information investigators sought.
“He worked side by side with them and then documented all his communications,” King said. “But he said he was trying to remain without an opinion.”
At 10:58 a.m. on Oct. 14, Garvin emailed Daniel Griswold, division chief of operations for the fire department. Six other fire officials, including King, were included on the message.
The email was formal -- Garvin addressed Griswold as chief -- and to the point.
“Could you please make a hard copy of the video footage from the F1 rig for CFD Incident #15-0009867 for DCI and the State Fire Inspector? This was for the fire at 1886 N Station Rd., the Landfill,” he wrote. “If you have any questions, please let me know.”
The video Garvin was requesting came from a truck used by the battalion chief, who that night was Jerod Levin.
The emails do not show whether Griswold responded -- but King wrote back five minutes later. He emailed Garvin but not the other officials included in the original email, a copy of the message shows.
“Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?” King wrote.
King maintains the email was a joke, rather than as an actual instruction. He described the email as an attempt at “sarcastic humor” with someone he considers a friend. Still, he was speaking to a subordinate, and one responsible for handling evidence.
“I don’t look at him as the lowest one, I look at him as a friend,” King told the Star-Tribune. “There was no thinking, you know what I mean. If I said anything, it would be making it up. There was just not enough thought into that email.”
King said he later made sure that Garvin understood he was joking.
“It was a joke and it was a bad joke,” King said. “And it was just between me and Devin to try to make light. I just got done telling him where some evidence was and then I just answered him. There was no thinking.”
The Star-Tribune attempted to speak with Garvin to verify King’s comments. Garvin declined to be interviewed and referred questions to Luben, the city attorney.
Luben declined to be interviewed for this story, citing attorney-client privilege. When asked to clarify, he indicated both Garvin and King were his clients. He did not elaborate.
Crews began responding to reports of fire at the landfill shortly before 6 p.m. on Oct. 10. It “spilled over” -- the term firefighters used to describe it escaping -- at about 2 p.m. the following day. The emails, along with interviews with fire officials and experts, offered a richer description of the 20 hours in between than what’s previously been made public.
Two fire engines -- each staffed with three people -- responded first, along with two brush trucks. The landfill was closed and locked for the night when Engine One, led by Captain Matthew Trott, arrived first.
Trott’s crew found a box where extra keys were stored, but they didn’t work. They used bolt cutters to enter and found two piles burning, or what firefighters call “fully involved.” The grinder -- a large machine used to crush branches into wood chips -- was also on fire.
Engine Three arrived soon after. Mike Magee, an engineer on that truck, described what he saw in a narrative later submitted to investigators:
“Initially, I had observed a slash pile and a chip pile that was burning and it looked like it was well contained within the chip yard. Near the fire, was a piece of heavy equipment (later identified as a grinder … there were rows of chipped wood piles to the east of the main fire and there were sporadic spot fires burning on top of the chip rows.”
Firefighters began to develop a plan. Wood chip fires burn hotter than normal, Griswold said, requiring a different approach than, say, a house fire.
“We can’t generate enough water to put this thing out, OK,” he said. “So we limit exposure. We limit the fuel by removing the unburned stuff that we can. And then, ideally, yeah, it burns down to a point where maybe you can spread it out.”
Firefighters worked with landfill employees to move equipment away from the piles. The landfill workers also separated the unburned chips to deny the fire more fuel, their narratives to investigators show.
At about 8 p.m., Engine One left to handle other calls. The piles were still fully involved, according to Trott’s narrative.
The landfill is home to various pieces of heavy equipment, including a grader. At some point, fire officials considered making fire lines on the prairie beyond the landfill. One person -- apparently a landfill worker -- also brought up the possibility of using the Solid Waste Division’s own equipment to form a fire break. But concern over the risk of performing such an operation in the dark was too great, Griswold said.
“The risk benefit to that is OK, you are asking non-fire-heavy equipment operators to dig a line out in the prairie at night … downwind of a significant fire with underground gas lines,” he said. “It’s a judgment call.”
Griswold said he kept King updated on the first night’s progress. King said he didn’t provide feedback other than to stress the safety of the firefighters.
“Well, I said, ‘Let’s not get anyone killed, I think. Let’s not get anyone killed.’ That’s my thing. Just injuries to firefighters. That’s what goes through my mind,” he said.
Around midnight, firefighters left a two-man crew to monitor the pile until morning. They used a deck gun to spray water on the fire and monitored for spot fires, according to the narrative later provided by Levin, the highest-ranking firefighter on the scene the first night.
The two-man crew remained at the fire until 7 a.m., with one of the firefighters later estimating they sprayed 200,000 to 250,000 gallons on the still-burning piles.
Griswold said an overnight crew of two people was appropriate, given the circumstances. When pressed about bringing in more crews to put more water on the fire, he said that it wouldn’t have mattered, because wood chip fires burn too hot for water alone to extinguish them.
Instead, firefighters stuck to their plan: allow the piles to burn down to a manageable level, then extinguish them.
“But we were in the understanding that this was a situation where we could be for days,” Griswold said. “We’ll monitor, we’ll protect exposures, we’ll reevaluate in the morning in the daylight.”
The weather, however, did not cooperate. The wind grew stronger in the morning, and by about 11:30 a.m., crews on-scene reported the piles were heating up and the wind was getting stronger, according to Levin’s narrative. The battalion chief began to call for additional resources. More firefighters, engines and trucks arrived at the landfill.
At about 1 p.m., a small fire started outside the landfill road but was quickly contained. About an hour later, another fire began outside the perimeter. This time, firefighters couldn’t put it out before it began to spread. The Cole Creek Fire had begun.
A year has since passed. Fire officials have the benefit of hindsight. Would they do anything differently?
Nothing would have guaranteed a different result, Griswold said.
“I can’t speculate as to what you would try for a lot of reasons,” he said. “I don’t have that magic pill. I really do think that our plan, our decision making, given our experience and training, was legitimate, and I think we had unexpected circumstances that were outside of our control, something we hadn’t seen before, and now we have.”
The Star-Tribune spoke with three fire experts for this story. All of them agreed with the strategy employed by firefighters at the landfill -- remove whatever fuel possible, keep things contained and wait it out.
No amount of water, they said, would extinguish a wood chip fire on its own. Even foam -- which can be used to suffocate fires -- wouldn’t have been enough on its own. The piles still would have to be pulled apart, and the burning chips separated from the rest.
Legal fight ahead?
The Cole Creek Fire began on city property while city workers were using city equipment. City firefighters were attempting to contain it when it spilled onto the prairie on Oct. 11.
In such a scenario, an eventual court battle seems possible, if not likely. So far, 24 claims have been filed against the city related to the fire, according to city spokeswoman Tanya Johnson. They amount to roughly $1.7 million, and so far, none has been paid. It’s possible more could come -- the deadline is still a year away.
So is the deadline for most kinds of lawsuits, although certain suits in federal court could be filed up to four years later.
Losses from the fire are expected to rise into the millions, but the city’s liability is capped at $500,000 under Wyoming’s Governmental Claims Act. The city has handed over the claims to its insurer, the Wyoming Association of Risk Management.
Though the city hasn’t found itself embroiled in a lawsuit, officials appear to be taking steps to diminish that possibility.
On Nov. 4, then-Support Services Director Tracy Belser -- now an assistant city manager -- sent an email to several city officials, including King, Garvin and Cindie Langston, who oversees the landfill, instructing them to stop using email to discuss the landfill fire.
“Yesterday at our Department Head Meeting we were advised that all communication regarding the Balefill Fire, ongoing inspections, etc. should not be done via email,” Belser wrote. “From this point forward please stop using email to correspond on these items. We will need to discuss it in person, by phone, or via hand-delivered hard copies.”
Other emails show Belser’s message was circulated to others within the city.
Most emails sent to and received by city employees are public records, available to anyone who requests them.
Belser does not offer in her email an explanation for the prohibition on emails related to the fire. She told the Star-Tribune last week she didn’t send the message to keep emails out of the public record. Rather, officials were trying to encourage better communication and avoid a situation where multiple independent conversations were happening at the same time, she explained.
For his part, King said he thought concern over possible litigation may have inspired the email.
“They were fielding claims versus the city, I think,” he said.
That wasn’t the only instance when the city attempted to limit discussions related to the fire. Officials within the Casper Fire Department said they did not call an after-action review on the fire based on advice from an attorney for the city.
Griswold said firefighters perform informal reviews of fires routinely. They are used for training and education, rather than as a punitive measure.
The reviews can take multiple forms. Sometimes, it can be as casual as two colleagues discussing an incident while sitting in a truck one evening, he explained. Others are more organized.
“Usually with after-action review, (we) get all the units that were there or at least that did an important assignment, let’s get in the room and let’s go over this,” Griswold said. “We didn’t do that.”
The reason, they said, was advice from an attorney for the city. It was the first time he or King recalled receiving such a request.
But Griswold and King maintain the attorney’s advice did not keep firefighters from learning from the event. Talk between colleagues still happens, however informally, Griswold said.
“There’s a lot of conversations still in place because firefighters are highly critical, and the value, the need, the questions were still there.”
So what did firefighters learn from those conversations?
“Unfortunately, legal counsel doesn’t let me answer that question,” Griswold said.
Former Star-Tribune staff writer Lillian Schrock contributed to this report.
Follow Managing Editor Joshua Wolfson on Twitter @joshwolfson