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Flood, fire mitigation work around Colorado Springs will soon be complete, but land won't heal as quickly

By: Matt Steiner
April 16, 2014 Updated: April 16, 2014 at 7:00 am
photo - The charred hill above Mountain Shadows on Sunday, July 7, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
The charred hill above Mountain Shadows on Sunday, July 7, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

Pikes Peak area residents don't have to travel far to see reminders of what two years of fires and floods have done to communities and the land that surrounds them.

They see it up close and personal in Black Forest, Manitou Springs, Mountain Shadows and along almost every stretch of roadway that skirts the mountains in western El Paso County and into Teller County.

More than 32,000 acres of forest ravaged by the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires proclaim the damage with thousands upon thousands of blackened trees standing like charred exclamation points in the ash-laden soil.

In Manitou Springs, along U.S. 24 and in other areas struck by flash floods in the summer of 2013, piles of rock and mud that weren't there the year before line the roadways.

The evidence is most obvious along Canon Avenue and Narrows Road near Williams Creek in Manitou. Destroyed homes have been moved away, leaving gaps between some that are still inhabited and others that have been condemned but remain as battered, moldy reminders of the floodwaters that poured off the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

For the burned areas, it will be decades before vegetation begins to grow and hide the remnants of the disasters that destroyed 347 homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in 2012 and 488 more a year later in Black Forest, killing a total of four people.

Theresa Springer, with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, said the regrowth has already begun but said the process will be a long one.

Springer compared 12 years of healing in the Hayman Fire area to the Waldo Canyon scar. Whereas more than 90 percent of the forest floor is covered with vegetation after the Hayman blaze, which burned more than 137,000 acres over six weeks in 2002, Springer would be surprised if the Waldo scar rejuvenated as quickly.

"It's a completely different landscape after the fire," Springer said.

She said the scrub oaks and knapweed could be problems.

The scrub oak in the Waldo Canyon scar is keeping some of the other ground grasses from growing, Springer said. A secondary problem from those small, shrub-like trees could be a repeat of dangerous wildfire. She said the forest needs some "grazers" like goats and sheep to thin out the scrub oak.

Springer said the knapweed thrives in desert-like conditions. According to Springer and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the knapweed secretes chemicals into the soil that kill off surrounding plants.

Springer, whose organization began in 1998 to help protect the Upper South Platte watershed, said those chemicals will not only keep the burn area from growing back, it also could leave bare ground that is prone to erosion and flooding.

The CUSP veteran of 16 years said ground cover is extremely important to not only replenishing the forest but to keeping floodwaters at bay. Springer said it could take decades for ponderosa pines and other conifers to return, but she expects elms, cottonwoods and some aspens to make a comeback within the next "four to five years."

Similar conditions exist in the Black Forest burn scar, but the threat of dangerous flash flooding is not as urgent. El Paso County crews have begun mulching and seeding in areas that could create fast-flowing runoff.

El Paso County fire recovery manager R.C. Smith said the flows might create new channels and force El Paso County to close roads once in a while.

Areas in Black Forest, in the Pike National Forest and below the Waldo Canyon burn area are also being transformed by man-made recovery and mitigation work.

Contractors working for the county and Mountain View Electric are removing hazardous trees from rights of way and county parks.

El Paso County began its work in February, and the utility company has been at it since late fall.

The focus below the Waldo Canyon burn scar has been flood mitigation.

Slopes that once had natural landscapes are now covered with retaining walls, log erosion barriers and sediment detention ponds. While the walls may be visible for decades, the ponds and log barriers will eventually become invisible in the landscape.

"What we're really trying to do is rebuild the flood plain and spread out the water," said Dana Butler, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Butler said that when the logs catch sediment and the ponds fill with debris, regrowth then begins. Forest Service workers and volunteers with CUSP and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute have begun speeding up that process with seeding and mulching work.

"All of a sudden, you're spreading water across an alluvial fan and it encourages all types of growth," Butler said, noting that revegetation will also begin to speed up in the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest burn areas as the ash washes farther downstream.

According to Butler, that has happened in the Waldo Canyon burn area after "high intensity and high quantity events" in July, August and September of 2013.

"Most of the ash has already broken up and moved downslope and into the drainage bottom," he said.

The transformation of the urban landscape will also be seen in the years to come as the city of Colorado Springs begins to rebuild Camp Creek from Glen Eyrie to the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.

According to city engineer Tim Mitros, the channel will be rebuilt with a large sediment retention pond next to 31st Street in Garden of the Gods Park.

The most obvious transformation will come in the center of 31st Street between Rock Ledge Ranch and West Colorado Avenue.

The city will begin construction to eliminate the concrete creek and build a more "natural channel" in the middle of 31st Street, complete with a bike path, large rocks and greenery.

More landscape transformation has been done as part of a citizen fire mitigation effort. Those in the southwestern part of town have been working hard, especially since the 2012 Waldo Canyon blaze raised awareness.

Rich Ingold and Margaret Brettschneider said their neighborhoods have begun to transform from dense, overgrown foliage to a more park-like setting as almost 50 percent of residents have cleared out low-lying limbs and ladder fuels that could carry fire to the crowns of trees. Ingold lives in the Country Broadmoor area, and Brettschneider heads up mitigation in the Skyway community.

Brettschneider said neighbors have told her that the "openness" allows better viewing of wildlife and lets more light through. Ingold echoed that thought.

"From a community appearance point of view, it is much better," he said. "And the side benefit is there is good fire mitigation."

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