NASA_Waldo Fire.png (copy)

The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire scorched more than 18,000 acres, resulting in two fatalities, and the loss of 346 structures and was, up to that point, the most destructive fire in Colorado since 1924. Within days of fire containment, heavy rains coupled with unstable soil conditions resulted in devastating flash floods, with additional property losses and one fatality in a subsequent flooding event. 

Colorado Springs wildfire advocates are taking their case for evacuation modeling to state lawmakers Wednesday, after the City Council decided not to go forward with any of their recommendations. 

Advocates with Westside Watch will emphasize the importance of cities and communities knowing how long it can take residents to evacuate an area and making that information public. Evacuation modeling can also help communities identify chokepoints that can be addressed ahead of time and evaluate how much development is acceptable, said Bill Wysong with Westside Watch. 

"Really, the goal is to open eyes," Wysong said. 

Rep. Marc Snyder, D-Manitou Springs, is a member of the Wildfire Matters Review Committee, that will hear from residents and an evacuation modeling expert, and he expects to see quite a bit of interest from his colleagues. 

"I think they will get a very warm reception," he said. 

The state has seen enormous, destructive fires in recent years with the Marshall fire destroying more than 1,000 homes in December. A presentation to the committee by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control showed the risk is expected to intensify with the core wildfire season lengthening by 78 days and millions more people expected to move into the state by 2050.

A state measure could help identify what areas of the state could need evacuation modeling and provide grant funding to complete it, Snyder said. But the committee is far from hammering out any specific bills. 

El Paso County has seen two fires ravage the community in the past 10 years. The Waldo Canyon fire that burned 346 homes in 2012 and the Black Forest fire that burned 511 homes. 

Many Colorado Springs residents recalled fleeing from the Waldo Canyon fire in recent months as they advocated for the city to model evacuation times and use those times to determine whether to allow more development in wildfire-prone areas. Long-evacuation times are also a risk for communities such as Evergreen and Woodland Park. In Evergreen the fire protection district identified “non-survivable” evacuation routes throughout the area.

Residents pleaded with the Colorado Springs City Council once more Tuesday to delay or consider additional wildfire evacuation measures ahead of final vote on a new ordinance that puts existing wildfire evacuation strategies into local law. The new ordinance requires the city fire staff to divide the city into evacuation zones based on roads, topography and other factors and educate the public on those evacuation zones. The city has already purchased the software needed to split the community into evacuation zones.

The council reaffirmed its support for the new ordinance on a 7-1 vote, with Councilman Bill Murray changing his vote to support the concerns of residents.

"The citizens are only asking for something very simple," said Murray, who has consistently supported their position.  

He noted if the evacuation times are unacceptably long, the city could consider widening roads. But the council cannot guide development decisions without data. 

Fire Chief Randy Royal said he did not think citizens would be "willing to pay millions or billions for the extreme anomaly." 

Councilman Tom Strand also reaffirmed Director of Public Works Travis Easton will evaluate the Fast Local Emergency Evacuation Times, free software that residents previously asked the city to use and report back at the end of August.

Councilwoman Nancy Henjum described the ordinance as a beginning to the city's work and urged residents to work with the city on solutions. 

Wysong noted the residents were open to a compromise, but city officials never met with his group outside of the rigid confines of a council meeting and none of the residents' suggestions were incorporated into the recently approved ordinance. 

The city could make investments in evacuation egress through the extension of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority sales tax, resident Walter Lawson said, but it was not factored into the evaluation of projects. He asked the city to delay a vote on the extension of the tax. 

"We have time to do this, plenty of time and we will have the money to make major improvements," he said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or 719-429-9264.

Load comments