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NOREEN: Colorado floods don't happen just from burn scars

May 12, 2013
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Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs dodged a bullet last week when the first series of rainy days didn't produce a destructive flash flood flowing from the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

The trouble is that we may have many more bullets to dodge. Colorado history shows that even in a relatively dry year, it takes only one slow-moving thunderhead in the wrong place to create a disaster.

The worst flood in the recorded history of the Pikes Peak region occurred June 13-17, 1965, when storms inundated the entire Front Range. Fountain Creek began to flow over its banks on June 14, but severe storms on June 17 did even more damage, destroying several bridges.

Cripple Creek received 7 inches of rain June 16 of that year. El Paso County received 6 inches in just four hours; Falcon got 14 inches of rain on June 14.

On July 31, 1976 - well after the spring snowmelt - a nearly stationary storm dropped 12 inches of rain at the head of the narrow Big Thompson River canyon downstream of Estes Park. In two hours the flood claimed the lives of 145 people and did extensive damage.

It is instructive to note that 1976-77 were drought years in Colorado.

In July 1982 strong rains in Rocky Mountain National Park caused the Lawn Lake earthen dam to fail, killing two campers and causing millions in damage to Estes Park.

In all of those floods, the presence of a wildland burn scar was not a factor, but runoff from forest fires always makes flooding more severe. The point is that even without a big burned-off area we've had serious flooding, and our so-called monsoon season can produce local disasters even in relatively dry years.

Newcomers should know that clear skies in the morning are no guarantee that there won't be thunderstorms by 2 p.m.

Last week Mark Wankowski, a meteorologist the National Weather Service in Pueblo, noted that the flash flood watch that was issued is 'going to go on for the entire summer. Get used to it. '

Based on our history, that is a healthy way to look at it.

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Got a question? Contact Barry Noreen at 636-0363 or at barry.noreen@gazette.com. See his blog on gazette.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Hear him on KRDO NewsRadio 105.5 FM and 1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. Fridays.

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