Waldo Canyon fire recovery group looks to collaborative efforts on fire mitigation

By: MATT STEINER matt.steiner@gazette.com
March 10, 2014 Updated: March 10, 2014 at 7:00 pm
photo - The trees on a ridge above Cedar Heights go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/THE GAZETTE
The trees on a ridge above Cedar Heights go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/THE GAZETTE 

Officials at Monday's Waldo Canyon Fire Recovery Group meeting looked back at two catastrophic wildfires in the last two years and then forward to the 2014 fire season and expressed collective frustration.

There was no disagreement when R.C. Smith, county fire recovery manager, and other El Paso County representatives said that there has not been enough collaborative work done on fire mitigation and preparing for what Mark Shea of Colorado Springs Utilities said could inevitably be the "next Waldo Canyon fire."

"What have we done to mitigate?" Shea asked. "And what are the right forums and the right attendees to look at communication and proactive, preventative measures?"

The Waldo Canyon Fire burned more than 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs in June 2012. As the area readied for repercussions in the form of flash floods, the Black Forest Fire erupted in June 2013, scorching more than 14,000 acres in northern El Paso County. Each fire killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark is co-chair of the Waldo Canyon Fire Recovery Group that features representatives from the county, the city of Colorado Springs, the U.S. Forest Service, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), the Colorado Department of Transportation and several other public and private entities. Clark echoed Smith and Shea, noting that county officials had a meeting Monday morning where the same questions were asked.

"I don't necessarily think it's been neglected, but I don't think it's been done in a cohesive way," Clark said shortly after the meeting, which has been held every month for more than a year and has been mostly focused on blurring lines between organizations in order to join forces in flood mitigation.

The commissioner applauded the work that has been done to lessen dangerous flows of mud and debris that poured out of the Waldo Canyon burn scar in July, August and September 2013.

"It's been awesome," Clark said. "We've had such enormous cooperation."

Clark said a lot of fire mitigation work has been done separately. But she said the lack of collaboration has led the county, the city and others to likely miss opportunities for grant money and other funding to help reduce dangerous fuels that are scattered through the forests all around the region.

Clark and Carol Ekarius of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte each said one answer might be a CUSP-like group to bind together fire mitigation efforts in parts of the forest that have not been impacted by recent wildfires. Ekarius, whose organization does both wildfire and flood control mostly in Park and Teller counties, said such an effort is needed in El Paso County to "strategically discuss the value of the options."

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