by Rick Langenberg:
Despite the devastation of the recent Waldo Canyon fire, which torched nearly 400 homes and killed two people, Teller and Woodland Park officials are happy with the response work exhibited by local authorities and residents. And within the near future, an official report may be released outlining probable areas of improvement. Another unresolved issue, though, surrounds economic impacts, and whether the area will receive any financial assistance.
During a recent meeting, Teller County Commission Chairman Jim Ignatius lauded the team work associated with combating the fire and believes the frequent emergency response tests have paid off. “It was a test of everything we have practiced,” said Ignatius. He touted the establishment of an incident command and emergency operations center, and the organizing of daily meetings with citizens and updating of regular information on their website and through the Nixle alert system. On the downside, Ignatius admitted that Teller County didn’t get much television media coverage. “There were a lot of people up here who were wondering why we weren’t in front of the cameras,” said the commission chairman.
But he cites the fact that the fire seriously devastated parts of Colorado Springs in torching nearly 400 homes and destroying several upscale neighborhoods. According to Ignatius, that became the focus of the media coverage, following the fire’s sudden turn over Queens Canyon and Rampart Range Reservoir and into the west side of Colorado Springs.
As a result, he said some didn’t realize the behind the scenes work of many local leaders, who were actually escorted down the Ute Pass daily to attend press and forest service briefings in Colorado Springs, and then drove back the same afternoon to convey this information to authorities in Teller County for daily meetings. In fact, the entourage of Teller officials up and down U.S. Hwy. 24 marked some of the few vehicles permitted on this road during the fire. “I can see why they kept the road closed,” said Ignatius, who like most authorities lauded the work of volunteer fire departments in succeeding in keeping the fire from jumping the highway.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Emergency Management Director Steve Steed, who said he wouldn’t have changed anything regarding how local authorities responded to the fire. But that said, he contended that the spree of fire incidents in Teller and Park in recent weeks has impacted county staff members significantly. Besides the Waldo Canyon blaze, Teller authorities had to deal with the Springer fire and the constant threats from an alleged arsonist, who reportedly has triggered more than 20 fires in the area. “We have had a lot of overtime hours,” admitted Steed. As for comments, from the public, Steed stated that Teller officials received minimal complaints and these mostly dealt with inconveniences they incurred during this period. According to Steed, Teller is now seeking federal assistance, as part of the national disaster declaration for El Paso and Larimer counties. It is still unclear if these monies would benefit local businesses and residents.
For the better part of a one-week period, Teller County was basically closed for business due to the Waldo Canyon fire and the shutdown of a vital link of U.S. Hwy. 24. This had big financial impacts on commerce. For example, the positive gains that Cripple Creek casinos have made this year were completely wiped out due to the closure of the highway, according to sources from the Cripple Creek casino industry.
Woodland Park response
This theme of strong cooperation among local agencies, leaders and residents was echoed by Woodland Park Mayor Dave Turley. In a deviation from regular council sessions, Turley addressed the public at the outset of last week’s regular meeting. Similar to the comments of Ignatius, Turley lauded the team work exhibited and especially was complimentary regarding the daily meetings held in Woodland Park and Divide during the fire. Turley also praised the attitude of local residents in handling a tough situation. “Everyone really worked together,” said Turley. “I was very pleased. Everyone rolled up their sleeves. We saw the true colors of our community.”
On a personal note, the mayor admitted recent events have taken their toll on him and other members of the community. Besides having to help man the city during a major fire disaster, Turley was impacted emotionally by the tragic death of several Woodland Park students and a boy scout leader who died following a tragic auto accident during a return trip from a camp outing. This fatal tragedy occurred around the same time that a pre-evacuation order was lifted for Woodland Park. “This hit really close to home,” said Turley, who knew one the youths extremely well. For a few brief moments, Turley appeared close to tears when making public comments last week.
Ben Caperton, the co-owner of The Cellar Door, and a former police officer in Texas, also lauded local officials in how they responded to the Waldo disaster at last week’s council meeting. “I can not tell you how well you performed,” said Caperton. “It could have been devastating.” According to Caperton, he never exhibited this much cooperation in handling a disaster during his decades of service in emergency responses.
According to City Manager David Buttery, the city may soon release a report outlining how the local region performed in handling the fire, and outlining possible areas of improvement. Buttery played a big role in leading the daily Waldo Canyon fire meetings in Woodland Park. Although the blaze didn’t move into Woodland, the area was seriously impacted financially. Recently, the city has tried to drum up more business by sending out “Elevate! your Summer fun” post cards and mailers to residents in the Pikes Peak region, outlining the many attributes of the Woodland Park experience and the events featured this summer and fall. Local leaders in the area are mulling better ways to promote the region following the fire. Some lodging properties in the area, for example, have reported a record spree of cancellations as a result of the fire.
In addition, a number of benefits, such as last Sunday’s Fire Season Relief and Recovery Benefit Concert, have been organized to help firefighters and victims of the Waldo Canyon blaze.
In other post-fire decisions, Teller County has now reverted from a Stage Two to a Stage One fire ban, similar to most jurisdictions in the area, including Woodland Park. With Stage One restrictions, open campfires are banned on any private or public lands in Teller County. Also, residents and visitors can’t use fireworks, explosives, or fire model rockets or burn irrigation ditches. And if property owners have burn permits, that doesn’t qualify as an excuse. They must obtain special permission from the sheriff’s office to use these permits. Stage One restrictions permit outdoor smoking and the use of barbecue devices, such as charcoal and gas grills, as long as special precautions are exhibited. The same is true with chain saw and outdoor welding use. This decision was made at a recent meeting by the Teller County Commissioners, following an analysis of recent weather trends and moisture counts.
Last week, the city of Cripple Creek officially ended its fire restrictions. Cripple Creek, which doesn’t have the same dangers as Woodland Park, doesn’t currently have any restrictions.