From Scorched Homes To Flash Floods

by Rick Langenberg:

 

 

The Waldo Canyon fire, the most destructive blaze in Colorado history and one that prompted a visit by President Barack Obama, has been completely doused. And although the fire led to the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents, including about 5,000 in the Ute Pass and Woodland Park area, and torched nearly 400 homes in Colorado Springs, a hefty team of firefighters from around the nation tamed the Waldo beast within two weeks.

As far as devastating fires goes, that’s amazingly quick. However, the Waldo Canyon fire could lead to years of floods and erosion and force local homeowners to remain on the watch for gushing waters near their doorstep and to review their insurance policies. Despite the fact that that the Waldo fire was turned from a Type One Incident Command over to a Type Three team, which puts it more in the hands of local authorities, the entire Waldo Canyon burn area, including Cascade, Green Mountain Falls, Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs and sections of Teller, were placed on flash-flood warnings throughout the weekend. And if history repeats itself, these sections may have to combat flooding for years.

Teller and forest service officials are well aware of the scars created from the Hayman fire of 2002, which devastated communities along Hwy. 67 North, near the borders of Teller and Douglas counties, for at least five years. Officials still estimate that it will take the Hayman burn area, involving tens of thousands acres of public lands, hundreds of years to fully recover. The Waldo Canyon fire, however, involves a much smaller area. Still, heavy rainfall poses big challenges in fire-ravaged landscapes, where a lack of vegetation and soil provide the perfect storm for rapid runoff and water contamination.

On the upside, the designation of a federal disaster area could help in pouring money into curbing the problem. But as the clock ticks with the beginning of Colorado’s monsoon season, time is not on the side of forest service officials and local authorities in doing flood prevention work. The threat of running water with no place to go remains one of the biggest immediate issues. Fire losses But that’s not the only Waldo Canyon fire menace. Green Mountain Falls residents recently had to contend with a huge invasion of bears. These several-hundred pound animals fled from fire-invaded sections of the Ute Pass, north of U.S. Hwy. 24, into town, in quest of food and unsecured trash barrels. Bears visibly prowled around the Joyland Falls Church center, the temporary home of the Green Mountain Falls government offices and one of several Salvation Army sites, and many homes. According to Michael Seraphin, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, bears are “opportunistic” animals and were merely making themselves at home in a prime potential food hub with no people around. “The issue is when everyone left for the evacuations, they just left; there was no trash pickup,” said Seraphin. “It was kind of a perfect storm, the bears finding food to eat, with no people around to chase them out. There was no reason to leave.” However, according to GMF Mayor Lorre Worthey, the bear situation in Green Mountain Falls has significantly improved in the last week, with a big decrease in sightings as the residents moved back into their homes and the bears were chased out. “It’s amazing how well our citizens adjusted to the evacuation,” said Worthey, who spent much time last week getting re-acquainted with local residents. “Our residents have cooperated very well.” And she admits that the sight of a bear in Green Mountain Falls is not that unusual and has become a summer reality. “That’s just the way it is up here,” added the mayor. The Green Mountain Falls Post Office is now loaded with information on bear-proofing homes and trash cans, along with other fire-wise tips. In the last 10 years, the Ute Pass area hasn’t made a huge amount of strides in fire mitigation work, according to local leaders.

Many feared that if the fire jumped Hwy. 24, the town could have faced much devastation. The area is still reeling in many financial scars from the fire. For the most part, the entire Ute Pass and Woodland Park communities were closed for business for about a week. Plus, hiking trails in the Ute Pass, a key component of summer tourism, still remain closed. Tourism is expected to take a huge dip, according to predictions of leaders in the region. In fact, Fred Crowley, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, estimated the economic impact of the Waldo Canyon fire at “millions upon millions of dollars,” according to an article in the Denver Post. Economic officials attribute most of the tourism impacts to the lingering image of the fire, cancelling of hotel/lodging reservations and the temporary closing of many key attractions and trails. Many towns, such as Manitou Springs, are employing campaigns aimed at attracting more residents from the region. Local leaders in Teller County, though, are cautiously optimistic that the region will return to a business as usual atmosphere. For a brief period last week, authorities were bracing for an extended closure of Hwy. 24. If that occurred, Teller County and especially Cripple Creek could have experienced major losses. In the wake of the Waldo Canyon, a number relief funds have been launched. The Pikes Peak United Way has organized a Waldo Canyon Fire Victim Assistance Fund. Check with the Teller and El Paso County government websites for details about relief efforts.