WALDO CANYON FIRE: A third of burn scar is 'severe', will take years to recover

July 10, 2012
photo - Brad Rust, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, takes a sample in a burned area near Pyramid Road in Cascade on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Brad Rust, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, takes a sample in a burned area near Pyramid Road in Cascade on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

CASCADE • Soil expert Brad Rust dug a hole in the blackened dirt on a hillside scorched by the Waldo Canyon fire and poured water into it Tuesday morning.

The water pooled. That’s not a good thing.

“It beads up and will not penetrate the soil,” said Rust, who works for the U.S. Forest Service.

The charred soil poses a threat to thousands of people who live downslope, because it — and ash and debris — can wash downhill in a rainstorm.

See photos from a tour of the burn area.

The water-repelling layer is known as hydrophobic soil, and it’s the biggest cause for concern following the Waldo Canyon fire, which started June 23 near a popular hiking trail west of Colorado Springs and has been 98 percent contained for several days.

“We know there’s going to be severe flooding potential, flooding coming off the burn area. The landscape has changed,” said Dana Butler, co-leader of the Burned Area Emergency Response team, a group of experts that has converged on the region to devise ways to minimize post-fire hazards.

The group’s analysis of the burn scar will be released July 16, followed by a request for money for mitigation work.

But post-fire problems have already begun.

As officials led a tour of the burn area Tuesday morning, road crews were removing debris from a mudslide that forced the closure of U.S. Highway 24 in Ute Pass on Monday night, brought on by heavy rain on the burn scar. A slide also tore through the Crystal Mountain area in Cascade, where some residents piled sandbags to keep the stream of ash and mud from their homes.

Using information from soil samples and aerial surveys, the BAER team report will show which areas among about 28 square miles were most severely burned and where officials should focus their mitigation efforts to protect lives, property and natural resources.

So far, it appears about a third of the burn area is rated “severe,” meaning most of the vegetation is gone. These areas include Williams Canyon and Camp Creek — bad news because both drain into the west side of Colorado Springs.

“If we get a slow, steady rain that allows the soil to absorb it, we’re going to be OK. If we get a heavy rain, we’re going to get a bit of soil movement,” said Troy Nelsen, the commander in charge of fighting the fire.

While the team’s call for mitigation work, ranging from planting vegetation to installing drainage-control barriers, will focus on national forest land, assistance is available to private landowners. The National Resources Conservation Service helps homeowners install drainage controls through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.

Jonas Feinstein, who works with the Conservation Service, said a local government or organization must sign on as a sponsor, paying for 25 percent of the work while the NRCS pays the other 75 percent. Homeowners can call the field offices in Colorado Springs, 632-9598, or Woodland Park, 686-9405, for more information.

Residents near the burn scar and on the west side of Colorado Springs are encouraged to consider buying flood insurance, because standard homeowner’s insurance won’t cover flood damage. Under the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, signed into law July 6 by President Barack Obama, residents whose homes could be impacted by flooding on federal land as a result of wildfire may be exempt from the standard 30-day waiting period for flood insurance eligibility. Immediate coverage is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Experts say areas left charred by the Waldo Canyon fire will take a long time to recover. In areas that weren’t burned as thoroughly grasses and green yucca soon will begin growing again.

“There’s a lot of black, but there’s a pulse of green just waiting to burst out in the coming months,” said Feinstein.

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