Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Fire and rain: Region girds for disasters

By Matt Steiner Updated: April 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Wildfire ravaged the mountains west of Colorado Springs on a hot, dry day in June 2012 after smoke billowed out of Waldo Canyon. Two lives, 347 homes and acre upon acre of national forest and a city neighborhood were destroyed.

As residents began to adapt to post-disaster life, many thought "the big one" was in the past.

But not quite a year later, on the afternoon of June 11, 2013, fire crews from all over northern El Paso County scrambled to contain the Black Forest fire. According to reports, that blaze appeared under control in the 90-degree heat until winds increased and gusted up to 60 mph. The 14,280-acre fire destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.

Within weeks of the second disastrous fire, flash floods poured down the barren west-side slopes and continued to do so all summer. Officials say the floodwaters will be a problem for decades to come.

As summer approaches, concerns over the inevitability of flash floods remain and two big questions loom: Will another firestorm bring more evacuations, smoke, ash and the trials of floods to another part of the region? Is the region ready?

Flood or fire danger - and sometimes both - is at the doorstep of more than 320,000 people living in El Paso and Teller counties.

Based on the 2010 census, 278,300 people live in the wildland urban interface, called the Red Zone, in El Paso County as do 22,591 people in Teller County, according to an I-News Network analysis.

There are about 129,000 homes in those areas, which stretch across most of the western portion of the county and Colorado Springs and up through the Ute Pass communities and into Teller County.

In addition, there are an estimated 21,120 people living in a flood plain in El Paso County, according to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. That includes about 9,600 homes. Flood plain numbers for Teller County weren't available, although floods are not a significant threat there, officials said.

Where the next flood or wildfire could strike is unknown, but officials have a good idea of the areas most at risk.

"There are still thousands and thousands of acres that are still unburned and unmitigated," said R.C. Smith, the El Paso County fire recovery manager.

Smith pointed to northern El Paso County where the Waldo Canyon fire encroached upon the Air Force Academy grounds, but failed to do significant damage. He talked of a patchwork of burned-out woods in Black Forest that intermingle with large swaths of unburned trees that remain vulnerable to the next spark.

Smith and El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark then did what officials throughout the county have done repeatedly in the last decade - they pointed southwest.

Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey, Smith, Clark and other officials say the region spanning from U.S. 24 south to beyond Cheyenne Mountain, with its narrow canyons, steep slopes and tens of thousands of residents, is ripe for a calamitous wildfire.

Fire danger

Residents in southwest Colorado Springs look at the wildfire destruction of 2012 and 2013 and wonder if they will be the next victims.

Margaret Brettschneider, who lives in the Skyway area near Bear Creek Regional Park, said Colorado Springs Fire Department officials continually come to her neighborhood and promote the FireWise program to encourage mitigation and teach proper emergency procedures in case of wildfire.

"They tell us that it's not 'if' it's going to happen. It's 'when' it's going to happen," Brettschneider said.

Rains throughout the summer of 2013 and a snowy winter would appear to have begun healing the dangerously dry conditions that have plagued the region for several years. But Tom Magnuson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo, said a pattern has developed over the last decade that dispels that notion and makes the fuels in the forest more problematic.

"It just seems like we can't win out here," Magnuson said. "We get rain. Then we get all the fuels growing. Then it dries out. And we get higher fire danger."

According to the forecaster, heavy snows in March would have helped the conditions heading into the next few months when winds typically increase and hot temperatures begin to bake the region. But the March snowfall was low at 2.8 inches in Colorado Springs, priming April and May to add to the danger. The city average 8.1 inches of snow for March, which is typically the snowiest month of the year.

"Theoretically we get more intense storms running through the area," Magnuson said. "That's probably going to happen. But if they come through in the wrong parts of the state, we're going to get wind."

Once that happens, Magnuson said, "It only takes a couple of days for the fine fuels to dry out."

Lacey said such weather conditions not only led to the ignition of the two most destructive fires in Colorado history, but pushed the Waldo Canyon blaze into the city. He mentioned just how quickly houses and lives can be lost.

"In four to six hours, we lost 347 homes," Lacey said, noting that the Mountain Shadows area where most of the damage occurred is "probably the most benign area of town when it comes to wildfire risk."

Residents in the southwest part of Colorado Springs are aware of the potential conditions and understand the fire dangers even as far east as Eighth Street.

"It's going to come ripping out of the canyon and right into the city," said Mark Morgenstern, who has lived on Benita Circle east of Cheyenne Canyon since 1987.

According to Lacey and Smith, the makeup of the foothills and the neighborhoods in the southwestern part of the city add to the threat.

Each said the neighborhoods are older and not designed with modern techniques that include disaster escape plans. The roads are narrow and there are several dead ends, Lacey said. Steep, rocky terrain in the canyons not only inhibits escape but makes it difficult for even the most highly-trained wildfire crews to battle the flames.

"Evacuation is going to have to be early," Lacey said, noting there must be more preparation and planning.

Lacey said his department has learned from mistakes made by officials and residents on June 26, 2012, when the Waldo Canyon fire roared into Mountain Shadows. He said people need to have important items before mandatory evacuation is announced and have "one foot on the threshold" ready to leave and not return. Many residents were away from home in 2012 when they heard the mandatory evacuation call and tried to get to their homes to retrieve their belongings. Gridlock ensued.

"We love our mountain," Brettschneider said. "We love our wildlife. We love our trees. We love our neighborhood, and I wouldn't want it to burn. But if it does, I want everybody out."

The fire marshal said the southwest is not the only part of town in danger. Despite the burned forest that has gone through a "natural mitigation" during the Waldo Canyon fire, he said the Cedar Heights area north of Cave of the Winds could become a tinderbox, especially if a fire "starts down low." That area, which is not far from Waldo Canyon, was saved during the 2012 blaze.

Teller County

Around the west and north sides of Pikes Peak, Teller County officials also are gearing up for potential wildfire.

Steve Steed, the county's emergency manager, said he has worked on minimizing the danger since he arrived in spring 2010. Even before the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, the county of 23,000 people learned valuable lessons from the 2002 Hayman fire that burned more than 138,000 acres from Lake George to Douglas County. While most of the fire was just outside the county, the wall of smoke and the orange glow of the fire could be seen each night by most Teller County residents.

Steed, who said flood is not a big risk in Teller County, has assessed potential dangers and places wildfire at the top of the list.

The emergency manager worked for years in California and helped manage many wildfires and said his first goal here was to unite the five volunteer fire districts and two paid departments in Teller into a mutual-aid machine.

He pointed to about three dozen small fires that firefighters kept to just a few acres during the last two years. In 2012, the week before the Waldo Canyon fire, 25 arson fires ignited. They were kept in check by alert residents, quick response and efficient communication between firefighters and Teller County sheriff's deputies. The arsons remain under investigation and despite more than 150 tips, no one has been arrested.

"We work through a very simple mutual aid agreement," Steed said, noting that a task force that includes the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District, the Cripple Creek Fire Department, the volunteer districts and the Sheriff's Office react immediately when smoke is reported.

"It's much better to call (in crews) for everything and back down accordingly," Steed said.

Steed is optimistic about Teller County's ability to respond and also about increased moisture in the forests west of El Paso County. As of early March, he said winter snowfall and last summer's rains boosted moisture in trees. Steed's office measures the cores at "less than 10 percent," which he said should keep flames on the ground and out of the crown of the forest. Crown fires led to fast fire movement in the Hayman, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Despite the optimism, Steed points to the southeastern part of Teller County as the most dangerous zone. He said the area that approaches southwest El Paso County "has the potential for a significant-sized, complex event" that would not only threaten forest, but threaten reservoirs and water supplies for Colorado Springs.

A fire in such a spot could become a regional, state or possibly even federal event, he said.

"We recognize our limitations," Steed said. "We are prepared to ask for additional resources."

Flash floods

Flash floods in El Paso County and Colorado Springs are a sure thing, officials said.

"There's going to be flooding, for sure," Magnuson said. "It's just going to happen."

A study conducted by Wildland Hydrology in spring 2013 identified probable flash flood danger zones. Flash flooding June 30, 2012, dumped more than 3 feet of mud and debris over U.S. 24 near Cascade. More flooding followed last summer, confirming the study's predictions.The $425,000 Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply (WARSSS) study identified Camp Creek, Douglas Creek and Fountain Creek as three of the most dangerous watersheds if heavy rains pour over the Waldo Canyon burn area.

Flash floods in July and August closed U.S. 24 and sent tons of water, mud, rocks and other debris into Manitou Springs, the Flying W Ranch, Glen Eyrie and dangerously close to the Pleasant Valley neighborhood near 31st Street and Colorado Avenue in west Colorado Springs.

Despite the certainty that such events will happen, Magnuson said it is difficult to predict when they will occur and how bad they'll be.

He called the July and August flash floods "rogue storms that just happened to hit in the wrong spot."

"You have to be vigilant every day and think that there's going to be a flood every day," Magnuson said.

Manitou Springs was hit the hardest by those flash floods. Several homes along Canon Avenue were destroyed, raising the awareness in the town of more than 5,000 people of the ongoing flood danger.

The WARSSS study and the lessons learned from the storms led to large mitigation projects across the Pike National Forest and in Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs.

But sediment ponds, seeding, mulching and culvert work can only do so much, according to U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Dana Butler. Butler said officials must keep watching the storms and floods that follow and learn which areas will need to be worked on next. Magnuson said even though Camp and North Douglas creeks saw some debris flows, they have not been tested by rogue storms.

"The take-home message is that there's still a very dangerous situation up there," Butler said about the burn scar.

Double threat

Cheyenne Creek runs through the middle of southwestern Colorado Springs, where officials worry about the potential for a big fire. The watershed was proven in September 2013 to be a trouble spot.

Storms that officials across the state referred to as "biblical" pounded the Front Range from southern El Paso County to the Wyoming border. More than 10 inches of rain fell near Cheyenne Creek over three days beginning on Sept. 11. Across Colorado, roads were washed away, thousands of people displaced and 10 died.

Several homes that sit dangerously close to Cheyenne Creek were flooded and property was damaged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided financial aid to those directly affected.

Cecil Horlback and Natalia Shnaper, co-owners of Sacred Grounds Coffee in the Canyon on Cheyenne Boulevard, said their business suffered.

North Cheyenne Canon Park was closed because of road damaged by boulders tumbling down the slopes. The business partners had taken over the coffee shop in early September and said the tourist business left with the floodwaters.

"People just stopped going to the canyon," Horlback said.

Horlback and Shnaper said customers and neighbors are focused on flood threats and the ever-present fear of fire.

"They all stress with each other," Shnaper said, noting that the Friends of Cheyenne Ca?n meet regularly at the coffee shop. "They care about each other, and the people take such good care of the canyon."

Horlback lived close to Mountain Shadows in 2012 and Shnaper lives in Monument, about a mile from where flames burned during the Black Forest blaze, she said. Shnaper and Horlback escapedthe Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Horlback and Shnaper are concerned, not only about the area near their coffee shop, but about the entire region.

Other areas, especially those in the wildland urban interface, also face a double threat. Manitou Springs, Pleasant Valley and areas along the mountains in El Paso County are among the trouble spots for fire and flood, officials said.

Horlback, who said the flood "overshadowed the fire" for her, paused, then repeated this several times while discussing the dangers in those areas: "God forbid."

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Reporter Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this report.

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