Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive and expensive fire in Colorado history, is almost nine months behind us; however, its effects—ranging from insurance claims to rebuilding structures to future preparedness—can still be felt. Over the next several months, one major concern among officials is that the fire will have increased the scale of flooding around Colorado Springs.
“Flooding is one of the higher risk events anyway,” said Ken Hughlett, Colorado Springs’ Emergency Management Coordinator, but the fire has “increased the risk of high flows and high debris flows.”
The danger is greatest for those on the west side of town, the part of town directly affected by last summer’s fire. Because of the devastation left in the fire’s wake, there is a greater chance that trees, boulders, and other debris will be swept up by floods and threaten homes and people.
The city has taken several steps to reduce the damage that flooding and debris may cause. The Office of Emergency Management has dug 20-feet wide, 20-feet deep holes in areas where flooding is expected to help catch water before it reaches homes or other structures.
The city has also stretched large nets across openings in the mountains so that, even if water gets through, debris will be caught.
The problem, said Hughlett, is that it is difficult to predict exactly where flooding will occur and how much water there will be. Because of the scars left by fire, “water patterns change with every rain.” This means that every time there is a new storm, the flooding possibilities are altered.
Another issue is the buildup of unwanted blockages.
Because of the uprooting of trees caused by the fire, whenever there is rainfall—even at non-flooding levels—rocks and plants are swept away and caught up together, forming a dam. This causes water to build up until there is strong enough flooding to break the natural roadblock, creating stronger floods in The Springs.
The city says it does everything it can to prepare for these variables, including training firefighters, police, and other emergency responders in the different eventualities.
Concerns about flooding come on the heels of the city’s recent construction of a new Emergency Operations Center (EOC). While the city has always had emergency management facilities, the new center is permanent, allowing those in charge of coordinating emergency operations to become more familiar with the minutiae of the facility.
The idea of a new EOC has been tossed around for years. One year ago, the city began to plan the specifics of what it now calls its “one-stop location” during emergencies.
In addition to taking engineering precautions against flooding, the Office of Emergency Management has launched a public education campaign, aimed at making sure that residents of Colorado Springs are aware of emergency procedures and have plans in place.
Although plans differ from house to house, they generally involve knowing under what circumstances one should move to higher ground and whether to stay in the house or neighborhood, or to leave altogether.
Despite the unpredictability of flooding, especially in an area just beginning to recover from a large fire, Hughlett says that Colorado Springs has one of the best public safety programs in the country.
In addition to brochures and other safety materials, the city has set up an interactive map, showing residents how much flooding threatens their property.
The first in a series of preparedness meetings for residents of the Pleasant Valley neighborhood was going to be held Tuesday but was pushed to Thursday because of weather, the city says. There will be two more meetings on Apr. 15 and 24 at the Manitou Springs town hall.
The city is hopeful that recovery efforts in the coming months and years can help minimize damage from the fire, thereby reducing the severity of flooding.