Fire recovery will be long, other areas have learned

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In Los Alamos the fire hopscotched homes. Later, some people were living in the neighborhood while others were trying to rebuild and recover.

It takes the entire community — and a helping hand from the federal government — to recover from a disaster as destructive as the Waldo Canyon fire.

That’s the message from other communities, large and small, that have dealt with the aftermath of wildfire. Those communities, like Colorado Springs, built into the urban-wildland interface, despite the dangers and the costs from building in areas prone to wildfires. This story wraps up a three-part series, after the CSBJ examined past wildfires and subsequent warnings in two earlier stories (July 13 and July 20).

Recovery won’t be easy or swift, despite optimistic views in the Springs that the entire fire will be forgotten in a matter of months. Recovery has been slow from the Hayman fire of 2002, and there’s little reason to expect anything different now.

“It’s not an overnight thing,” said Julie Habiger, public information officer for Los Alamos County, N.M., where 400 families in a community of 18,000 lost their homes to the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. “It doesn’t disappear with the smoke — it takes years, literally years.

“We had to have a plan, take step one and work through it. Of course, we had help that Colorado Springs won’t have.”

The help she refers to came in the form of a $132 million check from the federal government to cover all the recovery expenses. The federal government kicked in the money because the fire erupted when a National Park Service-prescribed burn raged out of control.

Still, knowing the costs were covered didn’t make the recovery go faster, she said, adding that Colorado Springs should be prepared to deal with the physical results of the fire for at least the next five years.

First steps

The first priority: get rid of the debris. After homeowners finished sifting through the ashes, Los Alamos hired a contractor to take out millions of pounds of debris.

But at the same time, the fire hop-scotched homes — much like the Waldo Canyon fire in Mountain Shadows — so people were trying to live in the neighborhood, while others were trying to rebuild and recover. It created a lot of frustration.

“Be prepared for that,” Habiger said. “Communicate. Often, and well. We held monthly meetings and sent out a monthly newsletter. People feel disconnected — they’re not in their homes. And if they are, their neighborhood doesn’t look the same; it isn’t the same.”

Los Alamos went one step further, bringing in survivors of the 1991 Oakland fire, which burned 1,500 homes, to talk about what the recovery would look like and what steps would be taken. It smoothed the way, she said.

The biggest lesson learned in Los Alamos and other stricken places: be aware of scam artists.

“Homeowners are at a very vulnerable point in their life,” said Julie Hutchinson, public relations officer at CalFire, the largest fire department in the nation. “They’ve never been so low. There are many people who will prey on these individuals and actually delay or destroy any home from rebuilding.”

Changed landscape

Hillsides in Los Alamos and San Diego were heavily damaged by fires. San Diego’s 2007 fire set the natural habitat recovery back decades. But 12 years after the Los Alamos fire, hillsides are starting to recover.

“Volunteer aspen and oaks have moved in, so there are a lot more of those,” Habiger said. “It looks different than it did before, but that’s OK. The ponderosa pines are coming back. They’re about 7 feet tall now.”

It didn’t happen by itself. Forest Service planes dropped seeds by the millions from airplanes. Volunteers from the trails association formed seed balls — muddy balls filled with seeds — and hiked them into the burn area.

“It took the work of the entire community,” she said. “And we were lucky that the entire community stepped up. Churches, environmental groups, hikers, all wanted to help.”

The fire was followed the next year by a flood that washed out the main road to the neighborhoods trying to recover, adding “insult to injury,” she said.

So they built a new road. And 12 years later, Los Alamos County just finished the final reminder from the fire. It had to restructure the main road into the subdivision because heavy trucks taking out debris and bringing in home supplies had damaged it.

“We worked on that for about three years,” she said. “We finished final repaving last year.”

In San Diego, practice makes perfect. Fire officials have the response down to a science, and provide immediate, swift help to homeowners. After all, the city’s recovered from fires before.

“We have a lot of experience with fires here,” Hutchinson said. “The devastating fires that you had in Colorado should serve as a wake-up call. Take steps now to protect your home and to prepare your family in advance of an emergency. Disasters like this can — and will — happen again.”

And they’ve happened again and again in San Diego. In 2003, a wildfire burned through hundreds of homes that were rebuilt — only to have them burn again in a 2007 fire. Much like Colorado Springs, San Diego residents ignored repeated messages about the dangers from Santa Ana winds and building high in the hills. The residents, again, paid the price.

A different approach

Los Alamos and San Diego follow the same path with wildfires: mass evacuations before fires get into neighborhoods, followed by professional firefighters who move in to protect structures. The same steps were taken in Colorado Springs, at least in Cedar Heights where the aggressive firefighting effort began from the start, much sooner than in Mountain Shadows.

But it’s not that way everywhere.

The Australians do things a little differently. According to a white paper from the University of California at Berkeley, Australia places much more emphasis — and spends more cash — on mitigation. Australian homeowners are left with a choice when a fire threatens their home: Stay and defend the well-prepared home, or leave early.

“The common argument is ‘if we had more fire engines, aircraft and firefighters, we could have prevented this catastrophic loss of homes,’” said paper author Scott Stephens. “While fire suppression is a critical component of fire management in the UWI, it alone will not reduce the losses of life and property. A new approach is needed.”

That approach, the paper says, mirrors the United States’ own regulations toward other natural disasters. Building on floodplains is restricted, and homes in earthquake zones must withstand quakes of certain magnitudes. But with wildfires, the nation’s cities simply choose to fight them.

The authors suggest uniform building codes in hillside developments requiring ignition-resistant construction standards that are universally applied, not added piecemeal over the years.

Those standards could be added to the homes that will have to be rebuilt in Mountain Shadows, perhaps staving off the next disaster. Newer homes with ceramic roofs, now required in some mountain subdivisions, survived the flames, while those with shake shingles went up in flames. Decks made of inflammable materials didn’t burn, while those made of wood ended up engulfed in flames.

Until the underlying issues are addressed, Habiger says people should get used to hearing about the Waldo Canyon fire and its aftermath. The city will focus on that fire for years.

“All the big projects the county was going to do fell by the wayside,” she said. “This is what we focused on for years.”

Springs has higher risk of wildfire than rest of state

The annual Colorado College-sponsored “State of the Rockies” report in 2007 included an extensive analysis of forest health in the Rockies, written by Carissa Look and Mathew Reuer. One section focused on wildfire dangers.

“The intersection of WUI (wildland and urban interface) areas and high fire risk,” the authors noted, “is one regional measure of fire risk by county.”

Using this metric, the top 10 fire risk counties in the eight states of the Mountain West included eight in Arizona, one in New Mexico, and one in Colorado — El Paso. Since this study was published five years ago, drought and continuing development in the wooded mountains have increased the danger of wildfire, as the Waldo Canyon conflagration so terribly demonstrated.

So why, of all the cities in all the Mountain West, is Colorado Springs so threatened by wildfires?

There are many reasons; some obvious, some not.

  • Fuel. The ponderosa/pinon/white pine/lodgepole pine forests that extend along our western border provide abundant fuel. Thanks to a century of fire suppression, the forests are unnaturally dense. Once started, fires tend to ladder to treetops and crown, becoming both more dangerous and more difficult to control than fires in the understory.
  • Climate change. Higher temperatures and persistent droughts have weakened the forest. Trees have lower moisture content, and are more susceptible to disease, especially the pine bark beetle. Such forests are highly vulnerable to fire.
  • Terrain. Steep, roadless mountains above the city provide a difficult environment for firefighters. Aerial fire retardant drops may be ineffective, allowing wind-driven fires to migrate quickly downslope and attack the forested residential developments in the urban-wildland interface.
  • People. Here, 36,000 local residents live in or adjacent to the urban-wildland interface. Fires that threaten life and property are more serious, more expensive, and more difficult to fight.
  • Firestarters. We love the national forest, so lots of us visit. Illegal campfires and discarded cigarette butts have caused plenty of fires, but so have careless shooters. A steel-jacketed bullet striking a boulder will cause a shower of sparks — molten bits of metal that easily ignite grasses and shrubs in the understory.
  • Lightning. El Paso County, with 27,500 sky to ground lightning strikes annually, leads the state by a wide margin. Jefferson County, the runner-up, has 7,000, while Summit County has only 1,700. Lightning from “dry” thunderstorms, which produce little precipitation, is a particular threat. In 2006, lightning ignited three fires in El Paso County during a 20-minute span.
  • Mitigation. Some individual homeowners and homeowners associations, notably in Cedar Heights, have implemented effective mitigation strategies; most have not. In the aftermath of the fire, that may change.
  • Regulations. At present, homeowners are in the interface are not required to mitigate. Existing shake-shingle roofs may remain, but new shake-shingle roofs may not be installed. Sprinkler systems are not required.

Long-term costs of fire will be hard to calculate

As Don Rumsfeld might put it, there are known costs, unknown costs and unknown unknown costs…

And the same can be said for the economic costs of the Waldo Canyon fire. As it still smoulders on Blodgett Peak, the accounts are being tallied. But it won’t be all bad news and red ink.

Known costs are relatively easy to quantify. Fire-related insurance claims, recently estimated at $352 million, will likely top out at around $400 million. The Forest Service has spent nearly $15 million fighting the fire, and will spend millions more on reclamation. Colorado Springs Utilities and the city incurred more than $7 million in expenses.

A large percentage of those costs will migrate to the other side of the ledger. Families whose homes were lost or damaged will likely use insurance proceeds to rebuild or relocate within the region. Cars, furniture, and personal belongings will have to be replaced.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants will also pay the city and county back for some — but not all — of the costs.

Local businesses saw sales declines of as much as 50 percent for a few weeks. Until complete sales tax data for June, July and August are available, hard numbers are unavailable. It will also be difficult, in comparing year-to-year figures, to determine whether drop-offs are entirely fire-related. Record-setting heat this summer, high gas prices and continuing weakness in the national economy may also have deterred visitors.

Yet the “unknown unknowns” may prove the most important. Will entrepreneurs go elsewhere? Will young professionals shy away from the Pikes Peak region? Will existing businesses seek greener, less burned, pastures?

“I’ve had a couple of Realtors tell me that their clients are ‘rethinking’ Colorado Springs,” said long-established real estate broker Becky Gloriod.

While some costs can’t be counted, examples in other parts of the country show that the Springs’ tourism industry should recover quickly.

A far more devastating fire at Yellowstone National Park shows that people have short memories when it comes to their favorite tourist locations.

In 1987 Yellowstone National Park received 2.57 million visitors. The next year, fierce wildfires burnt 798,000 acres, almost 36 percent of the park, and visitation dropped to 2.18 million. In 1989, despite the fire damage, 2.64 million came. Since then, visitor numbers have moved steadily upward, reaching 3.64 million in 2010.

Gloriod expects that Colorado Springs will rebound as well.

“By next spring,” she said, “everything will be back to normal.”

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the history of wildfires in Colorado Springs, previous warnings and recovery from major fires.

John Hazlehurst contributed to this story.