Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the history of wildfires in the Rocky Mountains, what threats lay ahead and how other areas manage the urban/wildland interface.
If the Waldo Canyon fire caught local residents by surprise, it’s not because they weren’t warned, but because they weren’t paying attention.
In 2011, Colorado Springs updated a 2001 wildfire mitigation plan with the “community wildfire protection plan,” which listed 63 neighborhoods as being wholly or partially in the “wildland-urban interface” area.
Wildfire risk assessment maps graphically displayed endangered neighborhoods in different areas of town.
Significantly, no part of Mountain Shadows was placed in the “extreme” risk category. Much of it, including neighborhoods that were virtually destroyed in the fire, was categorized as “moderate” to “high.”
By contrast, Cedar Heights and the neighborhoods below Gold Camp Road were rated “extreme” and “very high.” Much of Broadmoor Bluffs was similarly rated.
At least seven other red flags about fire danger have been issued in the past 17 years.
1995: Colorado State Forest Service prepared the Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Plan, which recommended that local jurisdictions prepare similar plans.
1997: Colorado Springs Fire Department initiated a strategy to “develop and implement a vegetation management plan for the wildland-urban interface areas to reduce the risk of fires spreading quickly.”
1999: Tri-Data Corp.’s study of CSFD identified the need to address the risk of wildfire to Colorado Springs.
2001: The city completed its first wildfire mitigation plan.
2007: The annual “State of the Rockies” report, published by Colorado College, rated El Paso County as the 10th most likely site for a catastrophic wildfire in the eight states of the Mountain West. No other Colorado location made the list.
2008: El Paso County’s pre-disaster mitigation plan was similarly pessimistic. Designating fire in the national forest as the single greatest threat to county residents, the plan’s authors pulled no punches.
“With relative humidity generally in the single digits, mountainous terrain, high pine beetle kill and fuel loading, it is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ a catastrophic fire ignites in the western part of the County, in the WUI where more than 36,000 houses are located.”
2010: In a Colorado State Forest Service report, exasperated fire managers noted that mitigation efforts are massively underfunded.
“One of the most significant challenges Colorado faces,” the report said, “is the cost to implement fire mitigation projects on a landscape scale. For example, a 2006 report by the Front Range Roundtable indicates that it would cost approximately $6 billion, excluding overhead and planning costs, to treat roughly 800,000 acres in lower mountain ponderosa pine forests on the Front Range where human lives, communities, natural resources, and other values are most at risk from wildfire.”
For homeowners in the forested hillsides, it’s tempting to believe that Waldo Canyon was the Big One.
“This was a freak,” said Becky Gloriod, a prominent local real estate broker who has represented scores of buyers and sellers in forested neighborhoods. “This was the worst fire in our history. We can’t just live in fear.”
Developer Steve Schuck echoed her feelings.
“You can’t develop for the 100-year event,” he said. “You can’t develop for extremes — if you did, I-25 would be 20 lanes wide, because sometimes it fills up for a couple of hours a day.”
But forest fires aren’t unusual, once-in-a-lifetime events — not in the Rocky Mountains.
Jeri Marr, forest supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, says the forests she supervises caught fire 40 times this year alone, while the grasslands had two fires.
“It’s the forest,” she said. “It’s built to burn — and we’ll be ready when it does. That’s really all we can do.”
Anyone who wants to fully protect property should stay away from the forested slopes of the mountains, says Tom Huber, geologist and professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“That’s the only way to totally prevent property loss from forest fires,” he said. “Don’t build there. The forests in the Rocky Mountains will burn. They’re designed to burn and to renew themselves.”
And even though the Waldo Canyon fire no longer smolders in the hillsides above Colorado Springs, the danger from fires will never go away.
“It’s still fire season,” Huber said. “It could happen again; there could still be another fire in the mountains. It could be this year, it could be next. There’s still a huge risk to property — Pikes Peak and Cheyenne Mountain have years of unburned fuel, just waiting.”
If Cheyenne Mountain burns, it’s likely that high-end homes in Broadmoor Bluffs and Stratton Preserve will also go up in flames.
“That’s the big threat — those homes on Cheyenne Mountain,” Huber said. “If a blaze starts there, like the one in Waldo Canyon it could easily take out hundreds and hundreds of homes.”
But on Pikes Peak, about 20 percent of the city’s water supply is at risk, which is why Colorado Springs Utilities has its own wildland firefighting team.
“And the way we deliver water, that means that some areas would completely lose their supply,” said Eric Howell, forest program manager for Colorado Springs Utilities. “We have infrastructure too — pipelines and supply routes that are in danger from erosion and from fire.”
There’s a different reality for some neighborhoods: Effective wildfire mitigation might sharply reduce property values.
In Broadmoor Bluffs, on Irvington Court, a quiet cul-de-sac where former City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher still owns a house, dense groves of towering first-growth pines offer shade and privacy to million-dollar homes. Lots vary in size from half to three-quarters of an acre.
Individual mitigation would accomplish little, while comprehensive neighborhood mitigation would drastically alter the landscape.
If asked to choose between continuing fire danger or a neighborhood denuded of its sheltering pines, many residents might opt for the pines.
Most believe the city is unlikely to require such measures.
“That kind of (mitigation) isn’t going to happen,” said Gloriod, “but the city could require cutting away brush, clearing debris and retrofitting sprinkler systems. The (Broadmoor) resort community has done a good job of mitigating.”
“I doubt that the city will do anything,” said Councilman Tim Leigh. “These are rich people, and we don’t tell rich people what to do. If they were poor, we’d make them do it. Sad, but that’s the way it is.”
And then there’s the long-held Western attitude of self-sufficiency.
“That’s not the city’s job,” Schuck said. “That’s up to individual homeowners. It’s their property — if they want to mitigate, they should. No one should mandate it, unless the homeowners association mandates it as a group. That’s not what government should do.”
Leigh said that he’d support a measure requiring homeowners in the hillsides to replace shake shingle roofs, strengthening present ordinances that ban new shake shingle roofs. Many homes in Mountain Shadows with the wood roofs burned while others nearby with other roof materials survived.
Mayor Steve Bach stresses both education and neighborhood-wide mitigation, noting that mitigation efforts in Cedar Heights had been largely financed by a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant arranged by CSFD.
Marr says that mountain neighborhoods should use the resources available to them. Some mitigation programs and protection information are available through the city’s Firewise program.
“I’d encourage them to support that program, find out about it and implement a defensible space around their home,” Marr said. “That’s really all they can do.”
But Utilities wants to do more than prepare for the next big blaze. It’s working to restore the forest after years of fire suppression that left dense undergrowth and crowded trees.
In 2010, CSU conducted the first prescribed burn on the mountain, only covering about 114 acres. Current conditions prohibit burning, so Utilities has crews out with chainsaws on steep slopes, cutting down trees and clearing underbrush.
“Basically, we’re working to revert the forest to a more normal range,” Howell said. “We’ve suppressed fire for so long, that there’s too much undergrowth, too many trees — and it’s created a huge risk. So we’re mimicking Mother Nature, removing trees and vegetation, creating more open areas.”
CSU is also clearing underbrush and trees from 20,000 acres around its holdings, working on the “bigger picture.”
“We’re doing what we can,” Howell said. “This is about mitigation, but it’s also about creating a healthy forest.”
But even severe and strenuous mitigation won’t stop the next Big One.
“If we have the same conditions, and a fire comes down Cheyenne Mountain, we won’t lose hundreds of houses,” said Fire Chief Rich Brown, “We might lose thousands.”
Next week: The third and final story in this series will cover how other areas have dealt with catastrophic wildfires, present and future economic impacts, and why Colorado Springs is at particular risk.
John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.