April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm
Volunteers and paid crews are working across the Pikes Peak region on wildfire and flood mitigation after two years of devastating disasters.
Still, building a cohesive fire mitigation effort is a challenge, as is persuading homeowners to mitigate fire danger, officials said. Getting cooperation at the state level hasn't been any easier.
A statewide building code recommended by the governor's office never gained enough steam to go before the Legislature. And a proposal to purchase a fleet of tankers to fight wildfires might go nowhere after a report released March 28 by the Division of Fire Prevention and Control that instead promotes use of smaller, fixed-wing planes to locate small fires before they grow into infernos.
A bill that would ban agricultural burning also went before the Legislature but was delayed after its sponsor suggested killing the bill because of opposition from farmers.
Crews from the Coalition for the Upper South Platte have worked with El Paso County, Colorado Springs and the U.S. Forest Service since the June 2012 Waldo Canyon fire ravaged more than 18,000 acres west of the city. While much of CUSP's work and the work of other groups has focused on flood recovery and mitigation, the organization's director of operations, Jon Bruno, said efforts also are aimed at the 2014 wildfire season.
Bruno said his crews are working near Woodland Park, Divide and other mountain towns to "break up the continuity of fuel."
"We're just popping holes in the sea of green and trying to return the forest to what it historically looked like," Bruno said, noting that more than 100 years ago, nature took care of mitigation with grass fires that thinned brush and so-called ladder fuels and kept dangerous flames from reaching tree crowns.
Bruno said that "popping holes" means thinning the forest with chainsaws rather than fire and creating areas that are intermittently fuel-free. That notion of clearing areas and helping to prevent the next wildfire from destroying homes is on the minds of fire officials, concerned residents and state legislators.
Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey said his department is ready for fire season but is worried that the community is not.
Lacey said the Colorado Springs Fire Department performed wildfire risk assessments in 2013 for more than 36,000 residences in the wildland urban interface, land that sits precariously between populated areas and natural forests or grasslands.
Fire crews conducted 1,083 onsite consultations last year, and Lacey said the department has partnerships with 106 neighborhood organizations to encourage residents to reduce fuels and create defensible spaces around homes.
In addition to regional agencies' mitigation work, the fire marshal said effective mitigation requires each homeowner to do his or her part.
"We still have inactivity by community members," Lacey said.
City crews recently have been thinning fuels in Bear Creek Regional Park, near the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and around Colorado Springs Utilities facilities.
The city has obtained $4.6 million in grants and has applied for another $445,000 for mitigation efforts. By early February, Colorado Springs had mitigated more than 170 acres in 22 city parks.
Margaret Brettschneider and Rich Ingold are two Colorado Springs residents whom Lacey calls "neighborhood champions" for mitigation. They echoed Lacey's concerns about inactivity, saying that less than half of the residents in their neighborhoods have mitigated their properties.
"There are just too many people who just don't think it's going to happen," said Brettschneider, who lives in the Skyway neighborhood near Bear Creek Park.
Ingold, who lives in the Broadmoor Bluffs area, said he, Brettschneider and other neighborhood leaders regularly visit new residents and encourage them to cut low limbs off trees, eliminate brush near homes and keep their lawns mowed.
Local fire officials point to southwest Colorado Springs as potentially the region at highest risk of wildfire.
Lacey said there is not much his department can do to force residents to mitigate. Although the fire code was changed after 347 homes were destroyed in northwest Colorado Springs during the Waldo Canyon fire, he doesn't foresee new fire suppression laws related to construction or land mitigation.
R.C. Smith, El Paso County's fire recovery manager, said county land southwest of the city is in dire need of mitigation work.
"From Highway 24 (south) to the Fremont County line, we really haven't done anything," he said, noting there is little money or manpower, and county crews already struggle to complete scheduled flood and fire mitigation.
Smith worries about areas west of Fort Carson where grass fires that are common on the Army post could spread quickly during high winds and reach Cheyenne Mountain. From there, the flames might spread toward Pikes Peak, because of an abundance of fuel.
While there has been some seeding and fuel thinning on county land in and around Black Forest, mitigation is up to property owners, and there are thousands of acres of thick, unburned forest.
Fire officials shortly after the June Black Forest fire said many of the houses that were saved had at least some level of mitigation and defensible space. The Black Forest fire burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.
Smith said mitigation and potential laws have been discussed at the county level. He said that residents have been pushing for fire suppression laws, but developers are against the idea because mitigation costs money.
Also, the county's varied landscape makes it tough to create blanket rules for all property owners, he said, and enforcement of any new laws would be nearly impossible.
"It's tough to get the districts to do the enforcement," Smith said, noting that many of the county's fire districts rely on volunteers and simply don't have the manpower to check properties for compliance.
Work to protect property and life from water, rocks, mud and other debris has been in full force since floodwaters poured off the Waldo Canyon burn scar multiple times in the summers of 2012 and 2013.
Those flash floods killed a man after his vehicle was swept away on U.S. 24 in Ute Pass, destroyed homes along Canon Avenue in Manitou Springs, trashed businesses, and led to several road closures and lengthy evacuations.
U.S. Forest Service workers, city of Colorado Springs crews and an army of volunteers led by CUSP and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute have worked to stabilize steep, burned slopes throughout the Waldo Canyon burn area. They've built several sediment detention ponds and reshaped watersheds above heavily populated areas.
"We're doing everything that can be done," said R.C. Smith on a tour March 24 of flood mitigation work in the Pyramid Mountain Road area north of U.S. 24 near Cascade. "Sometimes people don't understand that."
Smith and John Chavez, also with the county, pointed out 33 stone structures built along a 3-mile channel that flows south down Pyramid Mountain, past the Cascade fire station, under U.S. 24 near the Pikes Peak Highway and into Fountain Creek. The grade control walls and small detention ponds are part of a $480,000 project, the latest by the county and CUSP contractors created to slow debris that could threaten Manitou.
In addition, a large sediment pond is being built above Topeka Avenue and the channel downstream to U.S. 24 will be rebuilt.
- Colorado Department of Transportation: It completed projects in 2013 and has continued to help minimize damage to Manitou if more than a half-inch of rain hits the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
The biggest project is expected to last through April. CDOT is replacing a culvert under U.S. 24 near Waldo Canyon. Bob Wilson, a CDOT spokesman, said the new box culvert will be about 10 times larger than the old one that plugged up quickly during the flash floods. Work began mid-February, reducing traffic along U.S. 24 to one lane in each direction.
During 2013, CDOT completed major repairs to protect the integrity of U.S. 24 near Rainbow Falls in western Manitou Springs. Crews also installed a webcam and flood gauges high on the slopes in Waldo Canyon to provide alerts for flash flooding. Wilson said gates will be installed on U.S. 24 to stop traffic during storms.
- Manitou Springs: Crews spent much of early 2014 removing debris from Fountain Creek near downtown. According to Roger Miller, who oversees much of the mitigation work in the town of about 5,000 people, more than 3,300 cubic yards of sediment was removed along the creek banks near Seven Bridges.
A $5.4 million project will begin along Williams Canyon in late April, Miller said. The first of three phases will construct multiple debris nets in the canyon north of Manitou Springs. A large sediment retention pond will be built where the town bought two badly damaged homes on Canon Avenue at the mouth of Williams Canyon.
The first phase has a price tag of $2.1 million. About $1.9 million will be covered by a mineral impact grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
- Colorado Springs: The city is sponsoring several projects, including work in the Camp, North Douglas and Cheyenne creeks watersheds. Camp and North Douglas saw heavy sediment flows during flash floods in July and August, while all three watersheds were hit hard during September storms that dumped more than 10 inches of rain over three days in some areas.
City engineer Tim Mitros said the city is building a large retention pond on Flying W Ranch property. The city sponsored other work in the area in the spring of 2013 that included five smaller ponds. Those structures filled during the September storm, "doing their job," said the ranch's director of operations, Jason Moore.
Mitros, project engineer Mike Chaves and designers with Wilson & Co. Engineers have been working to redesign Camp Creek from the Glen Eyrie/Navigators campus through Garden of the Gods Park and Rock Ledge Ranch and along 31st Street in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.
The final design of the more than $30 million project was presented by city officials at an April 2 meeting. The project will include several structures to slow runoff before it reaches Pleasant Valley. The creek in the middle of 31st Street will be widened and redesigned, replacing the concrete channel with a natural look with greenery, large rocks and a bike path.
"We'll probably do this in phases," Chaves said at a meeting in late February.
Critical creek maintenance will be completed this spring and the bulk of reconstruction will occur during the next couple of years, he said.
Elsewhere, CUSP and RMFI volunteers are seeding, building log erosion barriers and doing other work in the Pike National Forest.
Officials know they can't promise the flood mitigation work will prevent all damage. After all, runoff from the Hayman burn scar continues to cause problems 12 years after the 2002 fire destroyed more than 138,000 acres from Lake George to Douglas County.
Flooding related to the Waldo Canyon burn scar could pose a threat for years to a more populated area.
"The disaster will continue year after year," Smith said. "We call it the rolling disaster."