For some Colorado Springs residents, the Waldo Canyon fire’s legacy is about more than thousands of denuded acres or hundreds of destroyed homes — it has inspired them to understand how they weigh in the balance between city and Mother Nature.
Residents have flocked to informational meetings on wildfires, insurance and evacuations over the past month, and on Tuesday night more than 100 of them drove through the snow to a Colorado Springs meeting about flash floods and how to survive them.
“I just wanted to know what my risk is,” said Shari Sherman.
Like her fellow westsiders, Sherman found her home on a city flash flood danger map, and discovered that the North Douglas Creek drainage down the street could pose a problem. The audience, which nearly filled the Front Range Alliance Church auditorium off Centennial Boulevard, listened to presentations from stormwater, forest service and insurance experts.
The flood risk for residents in the northwest corner of town, particularly those who live along the South Douglas Creek, have grown exponentially since the Waldo Canyon fire, Sherman learned.
“There’s a 350 percent increase of flood risk, in particular for those who live in the flood plain area,” said Bret Waters, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
From the forest lands behind Mountain Shadows, a network of creeks branch and run deep into westside neighborhoods, such as Pleasant Valley. The severely burned forest soil has become impenetrable, slick like ceramic, and allows water to come pouring down hillsides, overflowing the creeks. As the water moves, it collects and carries debris — the real danger of flash floods, said Tim Mitros, stormwater engineer for Colorado Springs.
“If it’s normally the water coming down we’ll be OK,” he told the audience. “But the debris is the huge issue.”
Flood prevention on the west side is a team effort, with federal, state, and local authorities contributing a piece to the system. The state and national forest service groups spent the late summer mulching the burned acres, in hopes of mitigating water flow.
Groups such as The Navigators, which oversees Glen Eyrie Castle, have put in mechanisms to stop debris flow. A debris rack — a large metal net that stretches across a creek or small canyon — will be installed in Queens Canyon, which later dumps into Camp Creek that runs to 31st Street. The rack costs about $600,000, and was mostly funded by grants from Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Navigator spokesman Gary Cantwell.
If the debris flow is kept from damaging homes like Sherman’s in the Pinon Valley neighborhood, that’s half the battle; the rest, or a portion of it, is up to the homeowners. Sherman, along with about half of those attending Tuesday’s meeting, bought flood insurance policies, which are not covered by general homeowners insurance. Homeowners can bolster their home defenses with sandbags, which the city will provide in April.
After the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 346 homes and killed two people in June, Sherman feels it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to flood preparation.
“A year ago we wouldn’t have thought any houses would be burned down, either,” she said.