Updated: January 25, 2013 at 12:00 am
Since 1976, Frank and Barbara Sanders have lived quietly on the northern edge of Pleasant Valley along the banks of Camp Creek, giving them a front-row seat to Rock Ledge Ranch and Garden of the Gods.
In June, the Sanderses had a front-row seat for the Waldo Canyon fire. They watched in horror as the hills above the valley became choked in billowing black clouds of smoke and the forest glowed a sickening orange at night as trees torched in the spreading wildfire.
Now, the Sanderses might have a front-row seat to the aftermath of that disaster.
Experts fear the Sanderses and much of Pleasant Valley could face devastating flooding from ash and debris-laden water with the next hard rain.
The inferno that killed two people and burned about 350 homes in Mountain Shadows also scorched upwards of 18,250 acres in the Pike National Forest, especially in Queens Canyon and the headwaters of Camp Creek.
Experts agree it’s not a question of “if” a hard rain will bring flooding. The question is “when” and “where” the flooding will occur. There are several drainage basins where rainfall, especially a notorious Colorado microburst, could unleash a raging black torrent.
Flooding could occur in Woodmen Valley, below Peregrine, where Dry Creek runs. Or in Mountain Shadows and surrounding neighborhoods along Douglas Creek. Certainly Manitou Springs and the communities up Ute Pass already have suffered and remain vulnerable from Williams Canyon and Waldo Canyon flooding.
But perhaps no neighborhood is more at risk than Pleasant Valley, a 1950s-era subdivision of about 800 modest homes. It’s a likely target because it’s the first neighborhood below Queens Canyon, where the fire raged for days, exploding down the foothills and into Colorado Springs on June 26.
Any significant rain is expected to carry tons of sterilized soil, rocks and burned timber down the mountainside, through Glen Eyrie and Garden of the Gods before it slams into Pleasant Valley.
The Sanderses’ tidy little home would be swamped by the first wave.
“We are very apprehensive about the next summer or two,” Frank Sanders said. “I don’t know how much mitigation they can do, really.”
The couple bought federal flood insurance. And they have a new weather radio so they’ll hear any storm warnings.
But they keep thinking back to April 1999 when a wet spring and late snow caused Camp Creek to jump out of its banks and into their driveway and lawn.
“The water coming down the street and flowing through our driveway like a river,” Frank said. “It was calf-deep and very swift.
“It gives you a really helpless feeling. All you can do is watch the water rise. It was pretty bad.”
Frank ordered a pallet of sandbags from a hardware store and the city arrived with a long rubber bladder that workers filled with water to create a dike to divert floodwaters around the house.
“We had an inch of water in the basement,” he said. “We’d have had it a lot worse if the city hadn’t showed up.”
That relatively small flood was bad enough to wash out two corrugated steel drainage pipes that carried the creek under the intersection of 31st Street and Chambers Way. Asphalt hung like a rolling, black tablecloth across the void.
The road was closed nearly a year as crews rebuilt a concrete culvert to carry the creek under the intersection.
“You just wondered how it would ever get back to normal again,” Barbara Sanders said.
Already, they’ve had a frightening hint of what they might expect. In July, a moderate rain brought swirling black water choked with ash and gravel down Camp Creek.
“It was black as tar,” Frank said. “And it smelled like fire.”
Fortunately, city crews had cleared dead trees at the mouth of the culvert before the rainfall so there was no repeat of 1999. In fact, Kurt Schroeder, of the city parks department, said crews removed hundreds of dead trees and even more live New Mexico locust trees from the creek as it winds through Garden of the Gods.
In addition, he said city engineers are looking for ways to slow any floodwater as it pours through the city park, reducing its possible impact on Pleasant Valley.
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark said the Sanderses were smart to buy insurance and get a weather radio.
And she urged the Sanderses and their neighbors to attend public meetings like one scheduled Tuesday being sponsored by the city to discuss flood risks and mitigation efforts.
“I don’t mean to scare people, but they need to be aware that this could be very serious,” Clark said.
The Sanderses are sufficiently aware, if not downright scared.
“We’ve gone to several meetings,” Barbara said. “We’ve gotten maps of the floodplain and read everything we can.”
In addition, they volunteered their house for taping of a video to teach volunteers how to fill and place sandbags as the city and county trains for possible flooding.
They’d prefer to return to enjoying their quiet old life. But they are preparing for the worst, with a scrapbook full of Waldo Canyon fire photos handy to remind them why they need to worry.
“Our only saving grace,” Frank said, “is that it is going to be a dry summer. There’s not much more to say. We just sit and wait. The more mitigation work they can do on the burn area, the better. We just hope it doesn’t rain hard.