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Cascade residents live in fear of being washed away below Waldo Canyon burn scar

March 30, 2015 Updated: April 3, 2015 at 12:06 pm
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The Waldo Canyon burn scar as seen from Blodgett Peak. Photo by Jakob Rodgers.

Tom Harris never sleeps when it rains in Cascade. He listens to the rain and knows that if he can hear the water coming down the mountain, it's too late.

"Two weeks ago, when it rained all night up here, we didn't sleep all night," said Harris, who says he is shellshocked by memories of post-wildfire flooding along Ute Pass. "That's the way our life is up here right now."

After a lifetime in Cascade and 40 years in a home he built himself, the 62-year-old Harris is ready to leave his property on Topeka Avenue at a moment's notice.

Harris is one of four Cascade homeowners whose properties were flagged for being in extreme danger from floodwaters coursing off the Waldo Canyon burn scar. All four have been offered a chance to get out - El Paso County hopes to buy the homeowners out of their endangered land before floodwaters claim their homes, and possibly their lives.

Since the summer of 2013, the county has worked to get funds approved to buy the properties, including Harris', which has lost a garage and workshop to flood debris. But government bureaucracy and varied definitions of floodplains have stymied the deals.

Harris has despaired more than once that the buyout process will ever be completed. He has thought of walking away from the home - which is paid off - so he and his wife can move on.

"I just wish they would get me out of here," he said.

Funds stalled

Harris is no stranger to the risks of living along Ute Pass, which has been shut down a few times every summer because of flash flooding. As a former chief of the Cascade Volunteer Fire Department, Harris helped fight the Waldo Canyon fire for 10 days.

What Harris was not prepared for was the fire's aftermath, something "10 times" worse than he ever expected, he said. Harris' home sits halfway up a drainage that has been prone to flooding since the fire denuded more than 18,000 acres north of Cascade. The home is one of a couple in the neighborhood that gets hit heavily by debris.

"Little did I know that this was going to be more hell than the fire. And it has been ever since," Harris said.

Harris has welcomed the buyout offer since Day One. The county's move to buy the homes is unprecedented - El Paso County has never bought land from residents because of damage and danger from a disaster, said Brian Olson, sales and use tax administrator for the county. The county plans to use money from two federal grant programs, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and Community Development Block Grant Program, to buy the homes.

Nearly two years into the process, the buyouts have yet to be completed, although Olson expects that two homes will receive offers in the next three months. He did not say which homes will likely receive the offers first.

Approval for the funds relies on multiple home appraisals and proof that the homes are in a floodplain.

Proving that Harris lives in a floodplain has been tricky, since the area has no history of flooding prior to the fire. The area is not a designated floodplain, despite the annual debris flows off the scar, Harris said.

"I challenge (the government) to come up here when it's raining and stand here with me and try and deal with it," he said. "It's a flash flood area. It's not a floodplain, as U.S. Geological Survey describes it."

Colorado has become quickly acquainted with flooding following severe wildfires and flooding in September 2013. But the state is unfamiliar with the buyout process, something that could be contributing to the lag, said Olson.

"The state hasn't had a lot of experience in this, either," Olson added. "We are just ... kind of at the mercy of the government to get some of these things done."

A new reality

Harris has tried to adapt to his new reality in Cascade, where flash flooding is a concern throughout the summer. He and his wife started putting their valuables into storage over the summer. When it rains heavily, they pack up their cars and head to friends' and family's homes.

But destruction is inevitable. Harris put hundreds of sandbags on the property, only to see all but a few get washed away. His garage was filled with 4 feet of mud, and his workshop and construction tools were swept away by water.

"That hobby shop that I was going to do for my retirement? Well, that kind of went away," he said.

Harris will happily leave the area if the buyout goes through, but since he last heard that he could expect an offer in January, he has given up.

"We're not really in a position, without a buyout, to go and negotiate a deal for another house," he said. "We feel like we've lost our one asset."

If the government approves the buyouts, the county hopes to pay homeowners the appraised values of their homes, Olson said. The homes will then be razed and the land will be turned into open space.

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Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198

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