My First-Hand Experience with the Waldo Canyon Wildfire and GPS

July 10, 2012  - By

By Don Jewell

Tuesday, the 26th of June, started off as a beautiful day in Colorado Springs, if you ignored the towering plume of smoke to the west from the Waldo Canyon Wildfire.


The wildfire started three days before in the popular Waldo Canyon hiking area in the Rocky Mountains just off Highway 24. While people in the Colorado Springs area were concerned, there were currently eight other wildfires raging in the state of Colorado and over the past month arsonist(s) were suspected of starting up to 20+ wildfires. So, many had become inured to the sight and smell of smoke. Only one serious wildfire was known to be currently out of control in Colorado at the time, so concerns in the Colorado Springs community could be described as moderate.

Then, at 1630, that’s 4:30 P.M. for my non-military readers, the wildfire displayed its true personality. Driven by what meteorologist later described as “a perfect storm of weather conditions” and howling winds exceeding 65 miles per hour out of the West, the fire spread eastward toward Colorado Springs at an alarming rate.


The dark black roiling smoke blotted out the sun, which was suddenly no more than an angry red disc in the sky providing little illumination. The suddenly disobedient wildfire began marching, indeed running and leaping, relentlessly eastward voraciously consuming homes and lifetimes of memories. My wonderful wife of 32 years and I had all of five minutes to leave our comfortable foothills home, amid swirling, stinging, cloying black smoke, flying embers, and flames that danced over 100 feet high. It was simply a terrifying event. As we fled the wildfire with quickly gathered pictures, important papers, and little more than the clothes on our backs, neither of us thought we would ever see our home of 22 years or anything inside intact again.


Fox 21 file photo of the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, June 26, 2012.


The wildfire and smoke turned a now-indelible drive down familiar streets into an alien landscape. Visibility was limited to less than ten feet and premature night had fallen in a fiery, smoky, unbreathable pall on more than half of Colorado Springs. In the end more than 32,000 people were evacuated, 11,000 homes were threatened in several nearby communities, and approximately 350 homes were lost in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Firemen tell me the heat was incredibly intense, and homes that were lost were quickly turned into nothing more than smoky white ash. It was a truly devastating turn of events but without all the capabilities generated by and enabled by GPS, the results could have been much worse. Mayhem was avoided, and I have no doubt that GPS units of various descriptions guided thousands of people to safety that unforgettable day. Thousands of people, who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves to be evacuees, followed voice and visual commands from small electronic GPS units that eventually led them to safety and safe havens all around the state of Colorado.


Firefighters and support agencies from around the U.S. responded. When the fire broke out and wreaked havoc in the Rocky Mountain foothills, there were ~423 firemen fighting the fire. After the breakout and at the height of the fire, there were firefighting assets from every source available including the DoD and the National Guard. They totaled more than 1500 in number, and in my book they are all heroes. Case in point, as we were fleeing down the mountain from our home in a billowing preternatural darkness, along with thousands of others just like us that just wanted to get out safely, the brave men and women of Fire Station #12, at the end of our street, were racing up the mountain to confront the fire and save our homes and our neighborhood. In this regard I hold them and all firefighters in the same regard as U.S. Marines, who when shots are fired run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it. Our courageous local firefighters, joined by a thousand more from across our nation, were running toward the fire, not away from it. Their bravery brought tears to your eyes that had nothing to do with the smoky atmosphere.

We Survived

All this occurred less than two weeks ago — as I write this column from my home, which was fortunately spared, albeit with a slightly smoky bouquet. We certainly consider ourselves to be blessed as the fire was stopped just a few hundred feet from our neighborhood.

When we finally and gratefully returned home and were able to fire up our computers, I discovered several testimonials from readers, first responders, firemen, and GPS users extolling the virtues first of the firemen and then of the GPS equipment that played such an important role in averting a total catastrophe.

One note from a couple who had only been in the local area for a couple of months described their experience fleeing before the raging wildfire in an only vaguely familiar neighborhood suddenly plunged into darkness, with air that was difficult to breathe and street signs that were unreadable. However, they movingly wrote, “Our brand new Garmin, that led us across country, also led us to safety during the WC wildfire and it was extremely comforting to know that the GPS knew the way…it eventually led us safely to a hotel outside the evacuation area…we had no idea which way to go and were totally dependent on our Garmin…we had a map but in all the confusion and panic it was of very little use…we could not read the map in the sudden darkness…we just listened to that small little voice that said…prepare to turn right in 400 feet…it saved our lives.”

USAFA under Attack by the Waldo Canyon Wildfire.

USAFA under Attack by the Waldo Canyon Wildfire.

Another shining example of bravery in firefighting came from the various agencies and firefighters that joined the firefighters from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). A USAF Colonel went on local television and declared that they had evacuated the academy and then established what they hoped was an impenetrable several-mile-long firebreak with bulldozers and heavy equipment, and although their numbers were limited, they would not allow the fire to penetrate the USAFA beyond that line and hold the line they did. These brave men and women were not all trained and certified wildfire firefighters, but they had the courage of their convictions and they held the line. The fire did not penetrate the USAFA beyond that firebreak. There are many more examples of true heroism that are too numerous to mention.

Firefighters from across the Nation

I spoke with many first responders — as I said, eventually 1500+ were fighting the fire — from as far away as California and Utah, who knew nothing about Colorado Springs or the Rocky Mountains to the west when they arrived on the scene, but who efficiently navigated the fiery wasteland with their map reading skills and various official and commercial/civil GPS units, both stand-alone and embedded units. And again Garmin units were almost always mentioned in the conversation — from sophisticated Garmins using elaborate forestry and military grid systems used by military and Forest Service first responders, in vehicles and aircraft, to wrist Garmins that simply allowed users to immediately locate their positions on a local area map.

At the height of the WC Wildfire, which as I write this is 98% contained but most certainly not under control, there were firefighters and first responders from the Forest Service, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, National Guard (Army and Air Force), the U.S. Air Force Academy, and numerous federal agencies to include C-130 MAFF (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System) units from Peterson AFB, in Colorado Springs (the 302nd) and from a National Guard Unit in Wyoming. The majority of the firefighters were not from the local area; consequently, most all of them were using an incredible array of various GPS devices to locate and navigate. And in most all cases there was some reference to an external map. Local television stations, which covered the fire exclusively for the first five days, all had different and multiple maps and many were frankly almost indecipherable. What was interesting is that in almost every case there was a definite and clearly visible unfamiliarity by the participants with both the maps and even the local area. It seems that except for certain branches of the military and those who use maps daily in their profession, map reading and orienting skills have fallen by the way side, if indeed there was ever any initial proficiency. It is a skill we all need to relearn.

Maps and GPS

A very close friend and business colleague of mine, Robert Rosenberg (Maj Gen USAF Retired), once ran what was then known as DMA or the Defense Mapping Agency and is now known as NGA or the National GeoSpatial Intelligence Agency. NGA specializes in maps and may be the best in the world at gathering the necessary data and producing them. Indeed, some of the NGA maps are simply amazing and true works of art. However, the sad fact is they are utterly useless if you don’t know how read and utilize them properly.

Historically, some of the inaccuracies wrongly attributed to the GPS were actually map errors. I personally observed an incident where Dr. Ivan Getting, a possible father of the GPS, whom I have written about previously, determined the exact geographical coordinates of his home from a long integrated GPS position, but which DMA maps showed to be in the middle of a lake. Obviously the map was several hundred meters in error, and this was a common occurrence in the “old” days. However, modern map-making techniques and accuracies today are such that this is no longer the case. But even the best and most accurate map in the world today is useless if we don’t know how to make use of it — we must learn to orient ourselves, accurately locate our position on a map, and generally make use of the features all modern maps provide. It is time to stop blaming the maps and map makers and start learning to use the phenomenal maps and PNT tools at our disposal.

Now, please don’t misinterpret my comments or take them out of context. After all, this is GPS World magazine and there is not a greater proponent of GPS anywhere than yours truly; however, I have also always been a proponent of developing simple map reading skills as well, which to some seems to be anything but simple.

Dwindling Skillsets

Like many of you, I have read passionate and somewhat inaccurate articles bemoaning the use of GPS for the navigation and situational skills that are lost by blindly following GPS dictates, and certainly I have received numerous letters from and responded to those who prefer to navigate using granddad’s old Texaco map in the glove compartment. However, unlike many uninformed critics of the GPS and proponents of map reading skills, I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the features I most appreciate about the GPS navigation system in my Audi is the traffic avoidance feature that when potential routes are blocked, or conflicts arise, automatically reroutes, without ever broadcasting that most irritating word “recalculating.” The other feature is the map display zooms out and displays more map features and alternate routes, so if I wish I may manually choose an alternate route. I have, just as you do, the option of blindly trusting the GPS, picking my own route on the map display or, as I most frequently do, using a combination of both map-reading skills and PNT automation.

In the grand scheme of things, map-reading skills are not difficult to develop and the basics are simple; however, it does take some practice — practice that can be gained every day by choosing different routes to work or common destinations and challenging yourself and your map reading skills when you travel. And here is a novel idea — actually read the instructional/operators manual that came with your GPS — learn all its secrets and built-in capabilities. You might be surprised by what you will learn and the skills GPS can help you develop.

Plethora of PNT Equipment

I had the enviable opportunity to speak with representatives from many of the more than 20 agencies that responded to the Waldo Canyon Wildfire and get a brief look at some of their PNT equipment. The equipment in general ranges from high end and highly sophisticated official first responder units with built-in communications capabilities to Garmins, iPhones, and iPads. The Garmins were equally split between vehicle-mounted, aircraft-mounted, and portable units, while the more sophisticated units were large and considered more appropriately as portable units with communication capabilities than as true handhelds. By far the most noticeable and prevalent units, other than Garmins, were Apple iPads, especially the new iPad IIIs with retina displays and ruggedized with Otterbox and Otterbox-like enclosures. There are numerous mapping and GPS/GIS applications that run on the iPad and other portable display devices, and in the future I will be reviewing the best mapping applications to assist you in choosing the one that is best for your situation. However, regardless of the application or device it would behoove us all to learn a bit more about maps and the devices we have on hand to display them, to include becoming familiar with that old Texaco map in the glove compartment, even if it is a last resort.

Tragically two souls perished in the Waldo Canyon Wildfire, as they were unable to evacuate their home before the fast moving wildfire overcame them. The Waldo Canyon Wildfire is truly a catastrophic event that will long be remembered in Colorado, and from which we can all learn a valuable lesson. And I wholeheartedly believe that many lives were and will continue to be saved by GPS/PNT devices in these types of catastrophes. We simply owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to learn how to best use our GPS/PNT equipment now, so it will be second nature when a catastrophe occurs. Take it from me, you life may depend on it. When you are fleeing for your life, you need all the help and good fortune available — it is not the time to figure our how your GPS/PNT device really functions.

God bless our firefighters and first responders.

Until next time, as Tennessee Ernie Ford said, “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” happy navigating and remember to read your GPS/PNT equipment owners manual.




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About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.