Published: May 26, 2013
On a Wednesday evening in early June 2012, Colorado Springs fire crews slogged through hip-deep hail and floodwaters, attempting to save stranded motorists.
A fluffy dog - as one emergency responder described - and a mother with her 3-year-old child were among those rescued as firefighters fought ice-cold water along Chelton Road.
The effort came during a blast of wild weather that dropped about 3 inches of precipitation in 3 hours over the central part of the city.
The front kicked off an almost month-long rampage of disasters in the Pikes Peak region, ending with the Waldo Canyon fire that burned more than 18,000 acres, claimed two lives and destroyed 347 homes on June 26.
The Waldo Canyon fire and the June 6 and 7 storm that brought hail and tornadoes to the Pikes Peak region are among the costliest catastrophes in Rocky Mountain history.
The Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association ranks them fourth and fifth on the all-time list.
The Waldo Canyon blaze that began June 23 and was 100 percent contained on July 10, cost insurance companies more than $352 million dollars. In comparison, the High Park fire that burned more than 80,000 acres near Fort Collins in June 2012, cost $97 million dollars.
The hail storm and tornado have been given a price tag of $321 million by the RMIIA, a total that includes all claims in Colorado for June 6 and 7. Hail fell along the entire Front Range during the storm, even halting traffic along Interstate 25 in south Denver because of 3 to 5 inches of hail. The weather service also reported a small tornado near the Denver International Airport.
Piles of hail
On June 6, firefighters used helmets, floatation vests and ropes as wave after wave after wave of hail-choked water surged toward them just west of The Citadel mall.
"As we were walking into the water, there were still cars trying to go through," said Lt. Mike Smaldino of Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 8.
Smaldino said he and another firefighter pulled the scared dog from one car and saved the panicked mother and child from another at Chelton Road and Santa Rosa Street just west of The Citadel.
The firefighter said some brave people lined the streets taking video as he and his colleague were tossed about by the icy flow.
"It reminds you real quick that it's real cold," Smaldino said.
When the storm ended, the city deployed snow plows to clear piles of hail.
Fire Station 8 was awarded a unit citation for its work that day and was credited with rescuing five people and a dog.
It would be 17 days before the Waldo Canyon fire erupted just northwest of Manitou Springs and north of U.S. 24.
The two weeks following the torrent of hail, however, would bring tornadoes to the east, a pair of fires near Lake George and a week when an arsonist ran rampant in Teller County.
Homeless in Ramah
Just one day after hail pummeled Colorado Springs, a tornado rolled through eastern El Paso County at the edge of Elbert County.
Mark and Debbie Studer rushed to their basement around 7 p.m. that night. They only had 30 seconds to react once they realized the twister - with winds well over 100 mph - was upon them.
The couple huddled together, clutching each other and taking shelter under a thick comforter as water poured into the basement and glass and debris flew around them.
The day after the June 7 tornado, Mark Studer surveyed the damage, which left his small home west of Ramah without a roof. He said, "It was over faster than it hit," as he stood in his destroyed kitchen and pointed to a pickup truck lying on its side. Debris was everywhere across the treeless landscape.
Debbie Studer talked about her "angels" protecting them.
"The only mark we had on us was a hand print on my leg where Mark was hanging on," she said.
The Studers enjoyed a much calmer state of mind 11 months later. In early May, they sat in their brand new home at the same site, looking out a large bay window in their brand new kitchen.
"We had so much support from everybody," Debbie Studer said, noting people from the Ramah community reached out with food and helped the couple begin the rebuilding process.
Debbie Studer said she was worthless to get anything done.
"I was in a zombie state for a few days," she said.
The woman praised her insurance company that handed her a $5,000 check on June 8. Farm Bureau Insurance loaned her and Mark a portable trailer to live in just days after the disaster and waived any deductibles to replace the house.
On Oct. 25, 2012, the couple spent their first night in their newly constructed modular home.
For the Studers the ordeal is not over, however, as they continue to clean up their land. But according to Debbie, the remaining work is trivial. She realized most would be taken care of last fall when she saw two trucks coming down the road carrying pieces of her new home.
"I just started bawling my eyes out," she said.
The blazes begin
A foreshadowing of the Waldo Canyon fire came on the western edge of Teller County in mid June.
The Weber and Springer fires began just a week apart near Lake George.
Weber began June 10 and was small - scorching just 70 acres northwest of the small town at the Teller County and Park County border. It only took two days to contain.
The fire did, however, send Lake George into "panic" just days after the 10th anniversary of the Hayman fire. The Hayman blaze sparked a couple miles from the town in 2002, burning more than 130,000 acres and moving northeast into Douglas and Jefferson counties.
Then, on June 17, 2012 \that sense of panic was amplified for Lake George residents. The Springer fire ignited about noon near Eleven Mile Canyon south of town and burned for a week.
Before it was done, 1,145 acres were scorched, Boy Scouts Camp Alexander was closed, 150 homes were evacuated and more than 450 firefighters from around the region were exhausted from battling the blaze on treacherous terrain in the canyon.
Those crews weren't quite done. Containment was achieved just as the Waldo Canyon fire began. Most of the firefighters didn't even get a breather as they headed east to fight that blaze.
The investigation into the Springer fire continues, but initial reports speculated that the fire may have been human caused. A witness told the Park County Sheriff's Office in June that people were seen near the area where the blaze ignited. Officials investigated reports that the gunshots were heard in the area, possibly from people taking target practice in the woods. .
Park County investigators referred The Gazette to U.S. Forest Service officials on Tuesday saying the cause of the blaze is still under investigation. A special agent in charge of the investigation could not be reached for comment.
Arson in Teller County
As the Springer fire roared near Lake George and the Waldo Canyon blaze erupted in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, fire after fire popped up throughout Teller County.
More than 30 fires were started from June 18 to June 25, forcing fire and law enforcement officials to dart around the county in hopes of bagging an arsonist.
"Natural causes were eliminated on just about all of them," Sgt. Mark Porcelli, a Teller County Sheriff's spokesman said on Monday.
Porcelli added that the investigation is ongoing, but "because of the proximity and the same M.O." arson is definitely suspected.
The fires happened mostly near Woodland Park, Divide and Florissant and were put out before a catastrophe occurred. Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger told The Gazette in early July 2012 that each of the fires were set very close to main roads where arsonists could make quick escapes.
According to Porcelli, the Teller County community became very involved. People kept an eye out for "suspicious" characters and turned in more than 150 tips. Investigators have been able to rule out most of those, Porcelli said.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation took the lead in the investigation, but agents from Park and Douglas counties, the U.S. Forest Service, the Woodland Park police, the State Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have all been in the mix.
Porcelli said scientific evidence has been gathered and submitted to the CBI for analysis.
"We're hoping that once everything comes back from the labs, we'll be able to put everything together and present it," Porcelli said.
June 2012 was filled with extreme weather conditions that fueled the catastrophes.
Extreme heat in the second half of the month led to the most costly wildfire in Colorado history. From June 17 to the end of the month the Colorado Springs area had only two days when the high was lower than 90 degrees.
"It was definitely anomalously warm," said National Weather Service meteorologist Kyle Mozley.
The heat became most extreme three days into the Waldo Canyon fire. On June 26, a record high of 101 degrees struck Colorado Springs.
The heat combined with winds from thunderstorms over the mountains pushed the fire into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, destroying 347 homes and forcing thousands of evacuations.
For June 2012, the average high temperature was 89 degrees, 10 degrees above normal.
According to Mozley, the patterns that brought on the early June hail and tornadoes were not out of the ordinary for late springs. He said they "can happen any given day" that time of year.
Mozley said May and June mark the peak of the tornado season for all of southeastern Colorado. While the meteorologist said storms are common, he did insist the amount of hail on June 6 was "pretty unique."
He said there was likely a pocket of cold air over the central part of the city that turned the rain into pea to dime-sized ice chunks.
"The profile was just right that day," he said.