2013 in review: Fires, floods top stories in the Colorado Springs area

By Sue McMillin Updated: December 31, 2013 at 8:01 am • Published: December 31, 2013 | 7:35 am 0

The warnings were everywhere.

Drought-stricken Colorado was primed for wildfire, and after a devastating 2012 fire season, people were on edge. Adding to the tension, thousands of acres scorched a year earlier meant a new threat loomed. Flash floods and the unknown consequences that could come with them were on everyone's minds as they looked to the sky. If rain fell too hard in the wrong places, catastrophe would strike.

The worst fears were realized, beginning in June with a rash of wildfires that included the Black Forest fire that would become the most devastating blaze in state history.

Two fires erupted June 11 in the Pikes Peak region.

The Royal Gorge fire sparked near Canon City, eventually burning more than 3,200 acres and destroying much of the Royal Gorge Park before it was fully contained on June 16.

Houses ignited soon after the Black Forest fire was reported, and thousands of northern El Paso County residents were evacuated as strong winds and high temperatures fueled the blaze. Two people were killed in the 14,280-acre fire and 488 homes were destroyed before full containment was reached on June 20.

As those fires raged, three others in southern Colorado converged to create a monster blaze that ravaged the forests near Wolf Creek Pass. The Papoose, Windy Pass and West Fork fires created a beast called the West Fork Complex. The blaze scorched more than 100,000 acres, and national reports painted a picture that made it look like the entire state was on fire.

After the fires slowed, the rains began to fall.

Flash floods hit the Waldo Canyon burn scar in July and August and gave a foreshadowing of deadly storms that in September left the entire Front Range drenched and running from raging floodwaters.

On July 1, the first of the flash floods that plagued the U.S. 24 corridor damaged homes and left people along Canon Avenue in Manitou Springs cleaning up mud. Another, less damaging flash flood struck the same area on July 9, and on Aug. 9 a strong surge sent vehicles hurdling down U.S. 24, killing a Divide man. The death of John Collins pushed emergency officials to a heightened sense of flood awareness and led the Colorado Department of Transportation to close a portion of the highway at the first hint of heavy rain over the more than 18,000-acre, ash-laden Waldo Canyon burn area.

Water, mud, rocks, trees and other debris poured out of the foothills the week of Sept. 11 in what officials called rains "of Biblical proportion." Some sections west of Denver and Colorado Springs received more than 10 inches of rain and on Sept. 12, roads washed away, homes were destroyed and people were either stranded or killed from southern El Paso County all the way north to the Wyoming border.

Ten people died that week, including two in El Paso County. That brought the Pikes Peak region's summer flood death toll to four, including Collins' death and Rose Hammes, a 17-year-old who was swept away by floodwaters in August; James Bettner, 47, who was found in Sand Creek in September; and Danny Davis, 54, who was found in Fountain Creek, also in September.

Warnings that the flash flood danger from the Waldo burn scar would loom for years led to mitigation work by local and state officials, including the addition of a new, much larger culvert under U.S. 24.

While the disasters dominated the news for months, statewide issues also repeatedly took the spotlight: The state legislature passed gun control laws, which led to the recall of two state senators; the possession of recreational marijuana was legalized and municipalities debated whether to allow pot sales; and voters denied a huge tax increase for public school funding.

See the top videos of 2013 here.

See the top photos of 2013 here.

- Recreational marijuana might have been legalized by voters in 2012, but in 2013 all the laws, rules and regulations surrounding the new industry were hammered out by lawmakers. The federal government announced it would turn a blind eye to states with legalized pot as long as it wasn't trafficked across state lines or wasn't involved in other crimes. Retail recreational pot sales will begin Jan. 1 - but not everywhere.

No licenses have been issued for sales in El Paso or Teller counties because most jurisdictions have banned sales. Retail sales might be permitted in Manitou Springs in 2014.

In July, the Colorado Springs City Council split 5-4 to ban retail sales of recreational marijuana. It was a surprise and blow to proponents of Amendment 64, who said the council's ruling did not represent the will of the people. Colorado Springs voters approved Amendment 64, the state law that allows adults 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow six marijuana plants on their property. The law allows cities to regulate the sale of marijuana for recreational use like they do alcohol sales. But cities can opt out of the law, and many did.

Most of the 136 licenses for marijuana shops issued by the state in December were for businesses in the Denver area.

- In December, the City of Colorado Springs was awarded from the state an estimated $120.5 million over 30 years to help finance the City for Champions - four major tourism projects that proponents say will transform the region.

The projects are an Olympic museum in southwest downtown and an adjacent sports arena, a sports medicine clinic at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and an Air Force Academy visitors' center near Falcon Stadium. Proponents danced in the street at the news, but now must plan the projects, including financing the rest of the $130 million it will take to build them. To get the state tax increment financing - a percentage of the net new sales tax generated in a specified zone over 30 years - the city must break ground on the four projects within five years and complete them within 10 years.

- Lawrence Leighton Smith, the music director of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic since 2000, died Oct. 25 under hospice care from complications due to Binswanger's disease, a form of dementia. He was 77 years old.

- The Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region announced Andrew Vick as its new executive director. He starts Feb. 1, and replaces Christina McGrath, who announced her resignation in October. Vick last served as executive director of the Allegany Arts Council in Cumberland, Md.

- The Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs was renamed the Manitou Art Center in October. About 185 names were suggested.

- In October, City Attorney Chris Melcher, who had become the focal point of a power struggle in the city's new form of government, announced his resignation effective at the end of January. Melcher had drawn criticism from past and current City Council members who said his legal advice typically aligns with the political position of Mayor Steve Bach. Melcher said the strife between the legislative and the executive branches was a reaction to the city's new form of government, and he said his office presented unbiased legal advice on what was best for the city.

- Colorado Springs School District 11 closed two elementary schools and one high school in May as a result of declining enrollment and a plan to consolidate schools and sell off under-utilized properties. The high school, Wasson, was repurposed into a campus with eight alternative-type educational programs, including a new early college program.

- As part of a large-scale leadership and educational restructuring that began in January 2011, Falcon School District 49's board hired a new chief education officer, Peter Hilts, for the top administrative position in the district. It's the first time a chief education officer was hired and not appointed. It's one of the top three leadership jobs. Hilts took over for the start of the 2013-2014 academic year.

- Five school districts canceled November school board elections because there were no contested seats. A total of 51 open school board seats were filled. Voters in Monument overwhelmingly turned down a $4.5 million tax increase for Lewis-Palmer School District 38, and a statewide tax proposal to benefit education also failed.

- Common Core Standards were adopted by most states in an attempt to improve education. The standards are designed to provide a clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be relevant to the real world, reflecting critical thinking and collaboration.

Colorado adopted the standards and they are beginning to be implemented.

The state also requires that teachers and principals be evaluated to more stringent standards.

- Former Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements was shot to death at the front door of his Monument home on March 19. His killing, which drew international attention, came just hours after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law new gun control laws. The suspect is Evan Ebel, a 28-year-old parolee with ties to a white supremacy prison gang, the 211 Crew, who died in a shootout with Texas police two days after Clements' death.

- Former Colorado Springs police officer Joshua Dwayne Carrier was sentenced to 70 years-to-life in what a judge called an "unprecedented" string of sexual abuses against 18 male students at Horace Mann Middle School. The sentence was imposed by 4th Judicial District Judge David A. Gilbert, capping a bitter legal saga that included two lengthy trials in 2012 and more than $10 million in civil settlements to be paid to victims and their families by Colorado Springs School District 11 and the city of Colorado Springs.

- El Paso County tied its 2002 record for homicides, recording 13 as of Dec. 30. The city of Colorado Springs had 30 homicides, two fewer than the record of 32.

- The Colorado Department of Transportation gave its blessing in October to funding a critical $95 million transportation project: the long-awaited Interstate 25-Cimarron Street interchange reconstruction.

The transportation commission also approved money for an I-25/Fillmore Street interchange and improvements to interchanges at Judge Orr Road and U.S. 24 and Colorado 21 (Powers Boulevard) and Old Ranch Road.

The funding is available under Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships, or RAMP, which allows CDOT to advance $300 million a year for five years to fund projects.

- The 4-mile segment of an expanded Interstate 25 opened Thanksgiving Day with new lanes from Woodmen Road to Interquest Parkway in both directions.

The work is part of the I-25 expansion project - an 11-mile project in northern El Paso County that will add one lane in each direction of I-25 between Woodmen Road in Colorado Springs and Colorado 105 in Monument.

The project is set for completion by Dec. 31, 2014.

- More than 30 black-footed ferrets were released into the wild Oct. 30 on a cattle ranch northwest of Pueblo. The monumental release of the predator that was considered extinct in the late 1970s came little more than a week after partners in 12 states completed a black-footed ferret "programmatic safe harbor agreement," allowing private landowners to release ferrets on their land without having to worry about liability or loss of ownership rights if something happens to the animals. Ranchers say the ferrets are crucial in a fight against prairie dogs that have ravaged pastures for decades.

- Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set the NFL single-season record with his 51st passing touchdown on Dec. 22 at Houston and wound up with 55. He also set the season yardage record at 5,477 and the team scored a record 606 points. Tight end Julius Thomas caught the record-breaker, one of four Manning touchdowns in the game. The Broncos also set an NFL record with four players catching at least 10 touchdowns this season.

- By virtue of their win at Houston, the Broncos won the AFC West for the third straight season, a franchise first. As the top seed in the AFC, Denver also will host a playoff game for the third straight season. The Broncos enter the NFL playoffs as the favorite to reach the Super Bowl from the AFC.

- Despite winning 57 games during the Nuggets' regular season, a franchise record, Denver moved forward without the two biggest names on the bench (George Karl, fired) and in the front office (Masai Ujiri, to Toronto). Brian Shaw was introduced as the coach.

- The Colorado Avalanche traveled into their championship past to jump-start their franchise. Patrick Roy, who won a pair of Stanley Cups as the Avs' goalie, was hired to replace Joe Sacco as coach. The Roy era opened with a flurry, the Avs winning 11 straight to start the season. Joe Sakic is the GM.

- Pine Creek and Coronado win state football titles, marking the first time since 1998 that a state football championship had been brought back to Colorado Springs. Both titles were also first for both programs.

- Colorado College loses in the last WCHA Final Five championship game, falling one win short of second NCAA Tournament bid in three years and a winning record, ending a streak of 20 non-losing seasons.

- USA Basketball announces its national headquarters will move to Tempe, Ariz., in fall 2015.

- Wrestling wins International Olympic Committee vote to remain in 2020 Summer Games on Sept. 8.

- CC hockey plays its first National Collegiate Hockey Conference game on Oct. 18.

- CC women's soccer hosts its first NCAA Tournament game in 22 years on Nov. 16.

- Ragain Sports announces its USL PRO soccer franchise will begin play in Colorado Springs in spring 2015 on Dec. 5.

- Air Force football suffers through the worst season of the Troy Calhoun period, going 2-10 with only one win over FBS competition, limited by youth, injuries and a porous defense.

- Air Force hockey fails to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in seven years.

- The Rockies had a new manager in Walt Weiss and said goodbye to a franchise icon, first baseman Todd Helton, but didn't fare too well during the season.

- A fully paved Pikes Peak International Hill Climb yielded an astonishing 8 minutes, 13.878 seconds record by Sebastien Loeb driving a modified minivan in 2013.

- In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed five gun bills into law amid a vocal outcry that the laws infringed on Second Amendment Rights. The laws prohibit new sales or transfers of magazines that hold more than 15 bullets or eight shotgun shells; require background checks on all gun sales even between private parties; charge a fee for background checks done for gun sales; enable judges to remove guns from suspects in domestic violence cases and prohibit online-only concealed carry laws.

The laws led to the recall of state Sens. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and the resignation of Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. Hudack was targeted for recall and resigned so Democrats could keep their narrow margin in the state Senate. Morse was replaced by Sen. Bernie Herpin and Giron was replaced by Sen. George Rivera - both Republicans.

Republicans have vowed to attempt to overturn the laws.

- More than 1,400 same-sex couples in Colorado have been united through civil unions since the governor signed a civil union law in May granting many of the same rights as marriage. It took Democrats several years to get civil unions into law, including a tortured 2012 session when the bill was never brought to a vote despite indications it had enough support to pass and a special session where it was narrowly defeated.

- A surge of shoppers temporarily caused glitches to the state's new health care marketplace, Connect for Health Colorado, during the website's first few hours of operation Oct. 1.

Overall, Colorado's state-run exchange operated far more smoothly than its federal counterpart, Healthcare.gov, but problems arose. An unwieldy Medicaid application appeared to delay enrollments through the fall, and enrollments were lackluster for much of October and November.

Insurance enrollments surged in December - reaching 42,771 by Dec. 23. Still, the exchange has been in constant danger of missing its enrollment goals - and that will be a major focus in the new year. Coloradans had until Dec. 27 to purchase health insurance, if they wanted coverage to start at the beginning of 2014.

- In October, Memorial Health System marked one year under the control of University of Colorado Health - a milestone for the formerly city-owned hospital system.

During the first year of University's 40-year lease, the hospital system began work on a three-year, $90-million improvement plan. University of Colorado Health spent $37 million on capital improvements during its first nine months - much of which went to a $40.1 million electronic records system that went live in early November.

Officials announced plans to seek a Level I Trauma Center designation, and the hospital also added dozens of doctors to its payroll, in large part by acquiring two Colorado Springs-based cardiology practices.

But challenges remain: Revenue and hospital visits largely remained flat, hospital officials said. Observers said the biggest change came in offering the hospital system a sense of stability.

"For the first time in a long time, we have a firm foundation on who we are and what we stand for," said Mike Scialdone, the hospital's chief executive.

- Two former Fort Carson soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, this year for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" during a 2009 battle at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha received the medal Feb. 11 and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter received the medal Aug. 26. At the time of the battle, both were assigned to Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

- Nine troops assigned to Colorado Springs military installations or with significant ties to the area died in Afghanistan this year. A Colorado National Guardsman from Watkins also died in Afghanistan. Two Fort Carson soldiers died in Kuwait in May due to a vehicle accident.

In 2013, more than 13,000 Colorado Springs-based troops deployed, according to local military installations: 12,000 from Fort Carson, 950 from Peterson Air Force Base, 157 from Schriever Air Force Base and 80 from the Air Force Academy.

- In July the first elements of Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division headquarters headed to Afghanistan to help close the books on America's longest war.

While most deployments last nine months, the length of the division's deployment has been left up in the air, pending events on the ground. All American troops are expected home by the end of 2014.

- The Oct. 1 federal government shutdown forced about 6,000 Defense Department workers off the job for a week in the Pikes Peak region. It closed commissaries and limited services on the region's military bases.

The Pentagon changed course days later, citing the Republican sponsored Pay Our Military Act. Services were restored and all but a handful of Defense Department civilians returned to work Oct. 7.

Congressional enaction of sequestration and other planned cuts totaling $1 trillion over 10 years took a bite out of local defense spending. Civilian Pentagon workers had to take six unpaid furlough days and the Army announced cuts of 1,500 soldiers at Fort Carson.

- A woman took command of the Air Force Academy, breaking a 59-year string of male leadership.

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, a 1981 graduate of the academy, was also the school's first female to hold its top cadet rank. Johnson said she didn't consider the promotion in terms of her gender.

"It's a very American experience," she said.

Johnson replaced Lt. Gen. Mike Gould.

- The single-family housing market continued to rebound in 2013. The pace of home construction was at its highest level since 2006; home sales and prices increased throughout most of the year; and foreclosure filings late in the year were on pace to be at their lowest level in about a decade.

- Wal-Mart continued its growth in Colorado Springs by opening three new Neighborhood Markets - stores that are more comparable in size to traditional groceries than the retailer's Supercenters.

- The five-star Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs expanded its menu of destination options with a pair of rustic retreats. In late summer, the hotel opened the Ranch at Emerald Valley, several cabins about 20 minutes west of the hotel on Pike National Forest land. The retreat closed about six weeks early in mid-September because of flooding that month; it's scheduled to re-open May 1. In 2014, the hotel plans to open Cloud Camp, another rustic retreat, on top of Cheyenne Mountain where hotel founder Spencer Penrose's historic lodge once stood. The Broadmoor also announced plans to upgrade two golf courses to accommodate major golf tournaments, but withdrew the plan after nearby residents voiced concerns about access in and out of their neighborhoods if the project was completed.

- Apartments were in demand in 2013, and rents soared as a result. The Colorado Springs-area vacancy rate of 5.4 percent in the third quarter was at a 12-year low, while average rents of $830 a month between July and September set a record high.

- This year saw some notable restaurant closures. Here's a look at shuttered eateries:

- La Creperie, 204 N. Tejon St., closed in October after being in business since September 1978.

- Merlinos' Belvedere, 1330 Elm Ave., Ca?n City, closed in December after being business since 1946.

- Charles Court, 1 Lake Ave. at The Broadmoor, closed October 21 after being in business since 1976.

- Little Market and Deli, 749 E. Willamette Ave., closed Dec. 24 after being in business since 1910.

- The Olive Branch, 23 S. Tejon St., closed Dec. 29 after being in business since 1979.

Contributors: Matt Steiner, Jakob Rodgers, Andrea Sinclair, Carol McGraw, Debbie Kelley, Erin Prater, Tom Roeder, Rich Laden, Monica Mendoza, Garrison Wells, Lisa Walton, Megan Schrader, Lance Benzel, Teresa Farney, Jen Mulson, Jim O'Connell, Joe Paisley, Scott Kaniewski and Paul Klee.

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