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Disaster FAQ

April 5, 2015 Updated: April 5, 2015 at 4:20 am
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Since 2012, there have been four federal and state disaster declarations that have applied to El Paso County.

June 9-12, 2012 - High Park and Waldo Canyon wildfires

July 26, 2013 - Black Forest fire

July 26, 2013 - Royal Gorge fire

Sept. 14, 2013 - Colorado flooding, landslides and mudslides

Disaster declarations make available certain funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There are two major categories of FEMA funds - public assistance, which helps public infrastructure, and private assistance, which can be given to individuals.

For federally declared disasters in El Paso County, the county only qualified for public assistance and some types of private assistance. The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires qualified for crisis counseling and unemployment help. Neither fire received individual housing assistance, which could have assisted homeowners who were without insurance.

While most of the funds from FEMA have expired, money continued to pour into El Paso County from other federal, state and private entities.

Question: I live in Black Forest, and my property was destroyed by the fire. Should I cut down my trees or leave them?

Answer: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, said Dave Root, an assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. Nonetheless, Root recommends that it is time for homeowners to start removing trees, particularly as they begin to decay.

The first trees to go should be those that pose an immediate hazard - trees near structures, roads, driveways or power lines. Although some homeowners may have removed some trees on their properties, the time has come to re-evaluate other trees to be taken down, Root said.

"With all the rebuilding and changes after the fire, trees that didn't seem hazardous one or two years ago may now pose a threat," he said.

Q: When will the Waldo Canyon trail open, and why hasn't it opened yet?

A: The U.S. Forest Service has not set a date for when the Waldo Canyon trail will open, but officials do not expect it to happen in 2015. The trail area has been damaged more than once by Mother Nature. First, the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire ignited near a dogleg just off the popular hiking trail. Second, regular rains and flooding have eroded and further damaged the trail.

Reopening the trail will require work to stabilize the hillside around it in the event of flooding. There are many dead trees that are starting to fall along the trail. While the Forest Service has been able to log 100 acres of the burn scar, many of the trees are in impossible-to-reach spots or would be too expensive to remove. Root suggests that neighbors band together to hire a contractor to remove trees.

"The larger the removal job, the less it costs per acre," he said.

Root advises against property owners felling their own trees. Tree stability changes as trees decay, making their direction of fall unpredictable.

"When a landowner hires a contractor, be certain they carry liability and workers compensation insurance. Ask them for references and check their references carefully," Root said.

Q: How much money has been spent on disasters in El Paso County to date?

A: By and large, the federal government has spent the most money on disasters in El Paso County. All told - including both fires, floods and disaster grants - the county has received $56,032,577 from state, federal and private entities.

Here's the breakdown:

Funds received for the Waldo Canyon fire: $18,414,118

Funds received for the Black Forest fire: $15,652,562

Funds received for Sept. 11, 2013, flooding: $4,477,636

Funds received from Community Development Block Grants: $17,488,261

Q: Will we have a bad wildfire season this year?

A: April is a tricky time to predict a wildfire season in Colorado, mostly because the state still has some snowfall in store. Wildfires depend on dryness and heat, and sometimes a wet spring can translate into a dry summer.

Spring moisture can drive plant growth, but if those plants rapidly dry out in early summer, the region will have a lot of fuel to burn. The timing of runoff - when it starts and how quickly it goes - can also affect a fire season.

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued in early March predicts that Colorado will have a late start to its core fire season. This prediction is expected to be especially true in south-central Colorado.

While El Paso County is not in a drought, areas on the Western Slope and in southeastern Colorado are still in droughts, which in recent weeks have worsened.

Q: How will travel along U.S. 24 change this year?

A: The Colorado Department of Transportation plans to lower its thresholds for closing the highway, although the department has not announced what those thresholds will be.

In 2014, the threshold for closing the highway was a flash flood warning and a quarter-inch of rain. The completion of several projects along U.S. 24 should mitigate the debris flows onto the highway and lessen the need to close it during certain storms.

Q: Has anything regrown on the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar? What will be done about dead trees?

A: New vegetation has spread across 15 percent of the burn scar since July 2012. Some of those plants have regrown from root systems - such as aspens or Gambel oak - and others are growing from seeds that spread from the unburned areas of the scar. To date, more than 2,707 acres of the 18,247-acre burn area have started to see new plant life.

While native grasses, aspens and scrub oak are returning, conifers are making a slower return to the forest. This is due to the fact that severely burned areas have little or no seed sources or soil moisture isn't favorable for regrowth. Conifers will likely start to grow back around the perimeters of the scar.

As for the countless dead trees across the scar - three years after the fire marks the time when they start to fall.

Q: We've been doing a lot of work to prevent flooding - how long will all that work last?

A: Most of the work done in El Paso County to mitigate floods is designed to last, as long as the retention basins are regularly cleaned out, said Theresa Springer with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. Most of the major basins built around the Waldo Canyon burn scar will need to be cleaned out, although there are some hard-to-reach basins that are impossible to clear out.

The log barriers that have been put on the hillsides of the burn scar are "one-time treatments," and if they have helped encourage vegetation growth, they will not need to be redone, Springer said.

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