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Danger of flash floods persists five years after Waldo Canyon fire, officials warn

April 20, 2017 Updated: April 21, 2017 at 6:49 am
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Volunteer rescuer Jesse Rochette searches the Fountain Creek flood waters for anyone trapped or stranded as another flash flood washes off the Waldo Canyon burn scar Friday, August 9, 2013. (Gazette file photo)

The threat of flash floods sweeping through the Waldo Canyon burn scar persists, nearly five years after the 18,247-acre blaze destroyed at least 346 homes and killed two people.

At a community meeting Thursday night, officials from agencies across the region addressed more than 50 people about recovery efforts and the importance of being prepared for future natural disasters.

"Our intent is to help people who live here - and people who visit, for that matter - know what to be careful about in our community," said Gordon Brenner, a city recovery coordinator.

A spring storm was hitting the Colorado Springs area as the meeting began inside Chipeta Elementary School, prompting Brenner to joke, "It seems appropriate that we'd have rain tonight."

Recovery efforts have slightly reduced the risk of flash floods, slowing and lessening the impact of heavy rains. But it's difficult to estimate how far the area is into what will be a decadeslong recovery process, Brenner said.

"We're making it so it's safer for people, so people have the opportunity to get out of the way," Brenner said.

Brian Kelley, an engineering programs manager in the city's Water Resources Engineering Division, gave an overview of ongoing recovery work and what has been accomplished.

"The goal is to protect property and to slow down the flow coming off the burn scar, to stabilize the drainage ways, to re-vegetate a lot of the areas that have been blown out by the heavy flow," he said.

The U.S. Forest Service in continuing to monitor the burn scar, said Pikes Peak District Ranger Oscar Martinez.

Re-vegetation efforts are "progressing at about the rate that we anticipated," and many recovery projects have been completed, he said. Looking back over the years since the fire, collaborate efforts have been crucial, he said.

The deadly fire that raged for more than two weeks in the foothills west of Colorado Springs denuded steep slopes, resulting in frequent flash floods and mudslides in Ute Pass along U.S. 24.

Officials who spoke at the meeting emphasized the importance of preparing for the future.

"What we want people to be is informed and prepared," Brenner said. "It's informing people of what's available and what's happening on the burn scar, and then being prepared for basically anything."

There have been no major floods or slides in more than a year in the burn area but that does mean the risk has diminished, said Ian Elliot, a Colorado Springs firefighter and swift water specialist.

"I'm here tonight to plead with you folks to resist complacency," he said.

Tom Magnuson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo, said it's crucial to recognize risks and make a natural disaster response plan.

"Make that plan, exercise that plan, and by that, you can improve your outcome - or, as we say in the National Weather Service, be a force of nature," he said.

For information on disaster preparedness go to csready.org.

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Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198

Twitter: @lemarie

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