City hasn’t learned from long-ago wildfires

Then and now: Fires have decimated homes in Colorado Springs area through the years, from a wind-driven blaze in 1950 (left) on Cheyenne Mountain and Fort Carson, to the Waldo Canyon fire (right) destroying much of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in 2012.

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the history of wildfires in the Rocky Mountains, future threats and how other areas manage the urban/wildland interface.)

By John Hazlehurst and Amy Gillentine

Colorado Springs residents love the city’s refreshing mountain climate and spectacular location at the foot of Pikes Peak. It’s always been a potent marketing tool.

Trading on this simple truth, local entrepreneurs transformed historic ranches bordering the national forest into upscale developments where homeowners can live among the fragrant pines and abundant wildlife.

These developments largely ignored the history of wildfire in the Pikes Peak region.

From the 1840s to 2012, wildfires have brought destruction and death to the city, its structures and its residents.

Frederick Ruxton, after whom Ruxton Avenue in Manitou Springs is named, first observed local wildfires in the 1840s, noting in his journal that he had to move camp because of thick smoke from a nearby forest fire.

In the fall of 1853, a vast wildfire that began at the base of Cheyenne Mountain consumed more than a million acres of forest.

According to “The Big Burn,” the fire was deliberately started by Arapaho and Cheyenne tribesmen who wanted to drive away the game that sustained the Utes in their winter hunting grounds. Fed by fierce southeast winds, the fire burned all the way to Wilkerson Pass before winter snows finally extinguished it.

The fire’s traces can be seen on the eastern slope of Pikes Peak, where a grove of dead trees known as the “dismal forest” still stands.

The forest recovered, only to burn again in 1950.

In “Fighting Fire in Colorado Springs,” Lester Williams said the deadliest fire in the city’s history started near The Broadmoor’s new golf course, where brush was being cleared.

Winds estimated at 70 mph drove the fire south and east for five miles, across Highway 115 to Fort Carson. Thirty-three buildings were destroyed, nine men died, and many were injured. Williams attributed the deaths to “sudden shifts in the wind (which) whipped flames over fire lines.”

The soldiers and volunteer firefighters who fought the blaze may have been unprepared for the ferocity of wind-driven wildfires, although a similar fire two years earlier, in 1948, had burned through 1,500 acres of timber before being halted near Star Ranch.

The lesson is clear: Fire in the wildland/urban interface can be unpredictable and dangerous.

Then, as now, there’s no sign that anyone paid attention.

Modern hillside subdivisions

Between 1950 and 1979, the city’s population more than quadrupled, soaring from 45,472 to 214,914. Growth drove the city’s boundaries to the northwest, where developers acquired multi-hundred-acre tracts of forested land abutting the Pike National Forest and sought city annexation.

Annexation required developers to submit detailed master plans and negotiate a bewildering tangle of city ordinances. Professional planners created slickly optimistic documents that sought to allay concerns of neighbors, city departments, the planning commission and City Council.

Contemporary records of three major annexations approved between 1979 and 1983 include master plans, minutes of public hearings and fire safety assessments — all of which ignore wildfire danger.

“That wasn’t even on the radar screen,” said former Fire Chief Steve Cox, who joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department in 1978.

And when the issue was raised, it was dismissed.

“I went before City Council when Cedar Heights was developed and warned them about the fire risk,” said Tom Huber, UCCS professor of geography and environmental studies. “They didn’t pay attention. I had other issues, but that was a big one. I told them it would be dangerous.”

Developers, neighbors, potential residents and city officials were more concerned with aesthetics, with keeping mature stands of trees near houses and preserving gambol oaks, ponderosa pines and dense grasses.

Still, some disagreed.

“A blackened backdrop to our city would surpass the scar on the mountain in ugliness,” said Beverly Reinitz in a letter opposing the development.

Thirty years later, as residents sift through charred remains of homes and visitors view the blackened hillsides, her prediction has become bitter truth.

Developer Steve Schuck, who has been involved with both Mountain Shadows and Cedar Heights, said he was aware of wildfire concerns.

“We paid attention, but maybe not enough attention — certainly not to the level we would now, given another opportunity,” he said. Schuck’s granddaughter lives in Mountain Shadows and had to evacuate, but is now home.

Civic leader Chuck Fowler wasn’t as lucky. His house burned.

“When I see what Chuck is going through — it’s really an awful thing,” Schuck said. “This is more loss than mere property. It’s just so hard for the people to get started again — they’re still in shock, still bewildered, still uncertain.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, city fire officials only expressed concern about adequate water lines, the length and turning radius of cul-de-sacs, maximum road grades, easy access and projected response times. Focused on conventional structure fires, CSFD didn’t weigh in on the dangers of fire propagation in heavily forested suburbs.

The 1981 Oak Valley Ranch master plan, which envisioned 1,400 “dwelling units” on 430 forested acres, promised to “preserve many of the natural elements of the site by preserving heavily vegetated valley walls.”

Similarly, the authors of the 1983 Peregrine master plan, which included nearly 1,000 acres of pine-scented uplands, sought to assuage the concerns of neighbors by promising to preserve the natural environment.

Mountain Shadows’ master plan had the same goal, assuring the public that the landscape would retain its natural beauty. The Fire Department expressed concerns about only one development — Cedar Heights.

That development, to be located upon 700 acres situated on steep, south-facing terrain bordered by national forest lands, could only be accessed by a single entrance. Grades were perilously steep, and the nearest fire station was several miles away. Noting that response times to structure fires would be at least 20 minutes, CSFD recommended against annexation.

Despite such warnings, as well as the opposition of many Colorado Springs residents, City Council eventually approved the annexation, with the proviso that home buyers be notified of potentially slow response times.

“I had just joined Council when the (annexation) ordinance came up for second reading,” said former Councilwoman Kathy Loo. “The (Fire) Department didn’t want it to be annexed at all.”

In the late 1990s, the Cedar Heights homeowners association took matters in its own hands, mandating wildfire mitigation by individual homeowners. The association even conducted mock evacuation drills. That mitigation, though expensive and controversial, may have saved the subdivision last month.

Mountain Shadows didn’t mitigate.

“We took over from the Hausman family, and they had the homeowners associations set up,” Schuck said. “They created smaller, neighborhood associations — not a single, overarching group. It would have been hard to get everyone to agree to fire mitigation, hard to get them all on the same page.”

While the natural habitat was the focus in the 1980s, the city changed its policies in the decade after Mountain Shadows was built — although it kept paramount the preservation of the woodsy natural environment.

When Michelle Grove-Ryland developed The Spires, located just below Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, the process of getting the master plan approved was more difficult.

“It was grueling,” she said. “There were so many things we had to do that they didn’t have to do before. The roofs had to be metal, no shake shingles. We had to have internal sprinklers in every house. The roads, the curbs, gutters, drainage — all very strict.”

Would stricter regulations 30 years ago have made a difference in the 2012 fire? Schuck doesn’t think so.

“It’s up to the individual homeowner to mitigate the property,” he said. “The city can’t do it for them.”

Judging from the experience of Cedar Heights, costly mitigation, combined with intrusive city regulations, might have saved many homes in Mountain Shadows from the conflagration.

The lesson of Waldo Canyon will be expensive, says Huber, the UCCS professor who warned his class last spring that conditions were ripe for a wildfire in Colorado Springs.

“When it’s all said and done,” he said, “with the property loss, and the cost of fighting the fire, and the cost of erosion control and flood damage in the burn areas — the cost is going to be hundreds and hundreds of millions.”

John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.