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A year after Waldo Canyon fire, Colorado town contends with flooding

Manitou Springs escaped damage from the nearby Waldo Canyon fire last year. But in the wake of that disaster has come a summer of flooding and mudslides.

August 29, 2013|By Jenny Deam
  • Volunteer rescuer Jesse Rochette searches for anyone trapped or stranded during flash-flooding Aug. 9 in Manitou Springs, Colo. The town has been hit by flooding four times since July 1.
Volunteer rescuer Jesse Rochette searches for anyone trapped or stranded… (Michael Ciaglo / Colorado…)

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — Bree Jensen remembers the terror of that knock on the door in the early morning hours of June 24, 2012. A sheriff's deputy said the Waldo Canyon wildfire was close and getting closer. Everyone in town was ordered to flee.

She can still see the sickly orange glow in the sky two days later as the fire topped a nearby ridge and roared into a Colorado Springs neighborhood, killing two people and destroying 347 homes. Nearly 19,000 acres of pretty mountain forest were eventually turned to charred rubble.

In the end her town of 5,000 people was spared from the flames. And while she grieved for her neighbors battling the blaze five miles to the east, she couldn't help but feel relieved. Her town was safe. The worst was over.

Then came this summer's rains, unleashing an entirely new kind of disaster.

The quirky little tourist town, where hippiedom coexists along steep streets with upscale shops and restaurants, has been slammed four times with flooding since July 1.

The worst was Aug. 9, when about an inch and a half of rain fell quickly across hillsides scorched by last year's Waldo Canyon fire. With few trees or plants to absorb the moisture or slow the runoff, an avalanche of water, mud and grinding rocks came crashing into town from the hills.

"You could hear the rumbling before you saw it. It was like this enormous black wall of water," Jensen said. She and her husband had been hiking in the canyon above town and ran to their truck to find higher ground. Within minutes 4 feet of muddy, debris-laden water roared down Canon Avenue, splintering houses, upending cars and trapping everyone in its path.

"I watched one guy get pulled out of the water," said her husband, Joe Jensen. "That's when I realized how bad it was."

Their neighbor, Erin Collyer, was trying to outrun the water when she was swept into it. She lashed herself to a pole with her backpack straps to steady herself before eventually climbing to safety.

On U.S. 24 outside of town, 53-year-old John Collins died after being buried under mud and debris. His car was found a short distance away. It is not known if he was swept from his car or tried to escape on foot.

Though many states, such as California, have long histories of fire followed by flooding, this is new for Colorado, and officials here are scrambling for solutions.

Earlier this summer Skip Smith, head of the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University, called the worsening pattern of wildfires in Colorado "the new normal."

In June — almost a year later to the day and 10 miles to the east — the Black Forest wildfire exceeded the Waldo Canyon fire as the state's most destructive ever. It killed two people and destroyed more than 500 homes.

Those who study floods and landslides now worry that what happened in Manitou Springs could be repeated elsewhere as tens of thousands of acres of mountainous terrain have burned in the last two years, much of the land near populated areas.

"It's not just the burn, it's what happens afterward," said Lynn Highland, coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey National Landslide Information Center in Golden, Colo. "While these debris flows are not unprecedented in Colorado, it's the frequency that is increasing."

Colorado, though steep in terrain, has typically been immune to the flash-flooding that often follows wildfires because of its dry climate. And, in fact, last summer after the Waldo Canyon fire, drought conditions mostly erased the hazard.

This summer is different.

Chad Gimmestad, a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Boulder, Colo., said that since July 1 more than 10 inches of rain had fallen in Colorado Springs — double the amount last summer. And though late summer often brings thunderstorms to Colorado, this year they are coming more often, which means the burn scar area is becoming even more eroded. With nothing to hold it, the runoff flows unchecked, gathering rocks and downed trees along the way that in turn clog culverts and natural drainages.

"This is not over just because the fire is out," said Jack Benson, city administrator for Manitou Springs. "It's just a different disaster."

His town will be at high risk for at least two more years, and scientists say it could be as long as 10 years before the burn area fully recovers.

Benson said government officials had been warning communities of the risk while also developing mitigation plans, such as detention dams high up in the mountains and trash racks to catch cascading debris.

But the ferocity of this summer's floods took everyone by surprise.

Six homes were lost or considered uninhabitable. Town leaders are in talks with owners, trying to encourage them not to rebuild in the danger area.

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