Double Disaster at Buffalo Creek: The 1996 Fire and Flood

By Beth Dodd

In the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire there is a heightened awareness of the potential for flooding and mud slides in Ute Pass, Manitou Springs, and on the west side of Colorado Springs. This is because after any large wildfire, especially in steep terrain, flood risk increases. Not only because the loss of vegetation exposes the ground to rapid erosion, but also because a fire can change the hydrology of local soils, making them water repellant.

Buffalo Creek Fire Station - 1996 Flood

An example of what can go wrong was seen in Buffalo Creek, 38 miles north of Woodland Park in Jefferson County, in the summer of 1996. That May, a human caused wildfire burned 11,900 acres of the Pike National Forest and nearby private lands. Eight weeks later, a severe thunderstorm over the burn unleashed a disastrous flash flood.

On the afternoon of May 18, 1996 an unattended campfire near Wellington Lake in the Pike National Forest started the Buffalo Creek fire. As the fire grew, driven east by high winds, residents of Buffalo Creek and nearby Spring Creek were evacuated. The fire spread rapidly toward Jefferson County Highway 126, which runs north from Deckers through Buffalo Creek and Pine to U.S. Highway 285. In spite of the determined efforts of fire fighters, the fire jumped the road, burning structures at the edge of Buffalo Creek and threatening homes in Spring Creek. By Tuesday, the fire had burned a path ten miles long and two miles wide, destroying 18 homes or other structures. The blaze continued east, until it stopped at the South Platte River.

In the end, the aggressive fire had ripped through eleven miles of forest in only five days. Although ponderosa pine trees can often survive low burning ground fires, the Buffalo Creek fire burned very hot, crowning in the tops of the trees and killing many of them. One source claims that 63% of the burn area experienced a high intensity, stand-replacing fire. The soil in these areas was scorched.

Buffalo Creek Community Building - 1996 Flood

It is now speculated that the Buffalo Creek burn actually created its own weather. The large blackened area warmed the air above it, which in turn caused thunderstorms to build and remain over the fire area. Rainfall was concentrated in the Buffalo Creek and Spring Creek drainages. The resulting mix of saturated and water resistant soils increased the flood risk when they could not absorb any more water.

 

On July 12, 1996, an intense thunderstorm poured 2.5 inches of rain onto the Buffalo Creek burn in just two hours. About one quarter of the Buffalo Creek watershed and three quarters of the Spring Creek watershed had been burned. Little vegetation was left to protect the naked slopes. Work crews had laid down hay bales and logs and planted trees, but it couldn’t stop the massive influx of water.

 

An ocean of black water and heavy sediment rushed into Buffalo Creek, Sand Draw, and Spring Creek and then into the South Platte River. As a result, the debris and water raised the river level by ten feet, creating walls of water that rushed downstream. The surge left behind a twelve mile trail of ashy mud, splintered pines, and tumbled boulders.

 

The village of Buffalo Creek on the banks of Buffalo Creek was devastated by the flood. The electricity and telephone lines went down. The town’s entire water system was ripped out. The raging waters uprooted trees and utility poles and ruined cars. The fire station, which straddled the creek, was completely destroyed. A brand new $80,000 ambulance was wrecked. The nearby community center was pushed eight feet off its foundation. Many homes were flooded and damaged. Jefferson County Highway 126, the main road through town, was washed out for an eighth of a mile and several other roads were damaged. At least one bridge was destroyed.

 

Worst of all, two Buffalo Creek residents lost their lives. In spite of the increased flood risk after the major fire a few weeks before, there was no flash flood warning issued by the National Weather Service. One man died when his truck was swept off Highway 126. Another man died while sleeping in his camper, which was parked next to Buffalo Creek near Longview and was washed away by the swift current.

 

The storm waters deposited tons of coarse sediment and debris into Strontia Springs Reservoir downstream of Buffalo and Spring Creeks on the S. Platte River. Approximately 15 years worth of sediments were deposited in the lake that day, reducing the reservoir’s storage capacity by a third. Riparian wildlife habitat along both creeks and the river was destroyed for miles.

 

The water in the six reservoirs along the S. Platte River, including Strontia Springs Reservoir, supplies over 75% of the drinking water for Denver. The reservoir suffered a major decline in water quality because of the inflow of burned material and sediment. The Denver Water Department estimated that it spent over $1 million on clean-up efforts immediately after the fire and flood.

The fire and flood also had a big impact on recreation in the surrounding Pike National Forest. The Top-of-the-World Road (Forest Road 538) and Forest Road 543 were closed to public motorized use and Motorized Trail 695 was closed to all use.  Buffalo Picnic Area, and Top-of-the-World, Baldy, and Tramway campgrounds were destroyed and removed. Major erosion badly damaged the Shinglemill and Morrison trails, and part of the Gashouse Gulch trail, which were closed. Camping within a quarter mile of Buffalo Creek in not allowed due to the risk of future flooding.


All told, the total fire, flood, and rehabilitation costs of the back-to-back disasters were estimated at $35 million. Reconstruction took many months, but by 1997 a new water system was completed, a large fire station was built on higher ground, and the community hall was reconstructed. The bridge over the South Platte River on the Buffalo Creek section of the Colorado Trail was rebuilt and reopened in 1998. Today, the Buffalo Creek area is a magnet for mountain bikers, who enjoy the sweeping views of the exposed hills and boulders that are the legacy of the fire.