Fire scars lead to mitigation work

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Derek Strickler, director of operations for the Navigators, shows an expandable debris net installed above the Glen Eyrie Conference Center.

Derek Strickler, director of operations for the Navigators, shows an expandable debris net installed above the Glen Eyrie Conference Center.

It might have seemed like strange correspondence coming from the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau: a brochure on flood preparedness.

But the CVB joined with the city of Colorado Springs to get out the flood preparation message to businesses across the Pikes Peak region. No one wants a repeat of last summer, when businesses were caught off-guard by natural disaster, said Chelsy Murphy, CVB director of communications.

This summer, businesses should have a disaster plan, she said. She sent out at least 500 fliers to local tourism-related businesses imploring them to make a plan in case of flash flooding.

“It’s mostly about education and empowering people to take responsibility and understanding their personal risk,” Murphy said.

Flash flooding may not have crossed the minds of small-business owners in years past. But this summer, businesses and residents are at risk of flash floods due to the scarred terrain left by last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, flood risk is significantly higher in burned areas until sufficient vegetation comes back, which could be up to five years. For example, in June 2011, the Las Conchas wildfire in New Mexico charred 150,000 acres; one month later, heavy rains flooded the burn area.

Stopping debris

In the Waldo Canyon burn area, there just isn’t vegetation to absorb rainfall and hold back debris and rocks, said Tim Mitros, city engineering development review and stormwater manager. The city has been working with two large landowners — the Navigators-Glen Eyrie Conference Center and Flying W Ranch — to build barriers that could prevent flooding to homes and businesses on the west side, in the path of Queens Canyon drainage.

“We’ve got to do what we can to keep debris from that creek,” he said.

Historically the Glen Eyrie property, 3820 N. 30th St., has flooded six times over the past 150 years, said Derek Strickler, director of operations for the Navigators, which owns the property. Camp Creek channel, which runs through the property, was identified as the largest watershed impacted by the fire’s burn scar. And downstream are Garden of the Gods Park, Rock Ledge Ranch and the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.

The Navigators began $1.5 million in flood mitigation work nearly three months ago, said Jack McQueeney, Glen Eyrie Group executive director. The group was worried about the foundation of Glen Eyrie Castle if flooding were to sweep by. They also feared what might happen if the debris washed into lower neighborhoods and businesses, he said.

“Experts say that what we are about to experience is very serious,” McQueeney said.

Engineers redesigned the channel that runs in front of the castle with special interlocking concrete blocks. The goal is for the water to be absorbed rather than continue running down the mountain and into the 31st Street channel.

About 75 percent of the project costs were covered by an Emergency Watershed Protection grant, through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Navigators picked up the rest.

The former channel would have sustained 400 cubic feet of water per second. The newly designed channel can sustain 2,000 cubic feet of water per second.

Part of the mitigation project includes two giant metal, flexible nets just up from the Glen Eyrie Castle to catch boulders and trees that could be swept down the mountain due to flash flooding.

“This is something we want to be very prepared for,” McQueeney said. “The debris nets give us a fighting chance.”

Owners of the Flying W Ranch, which was destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire, immediately called flood experts after the fire. They knew the land was at risk of a second natural disaster, said Aaron Winter, executive director of Flying W Ranch, which is at 2153 Chuckwagon Road in Mountain Shadows.

Crews have built six retention ponds on the north side of the ranch, which was a popular attraction for tourists and locals and included Wild West-themed food and music.

The idea for the ponds is to slow water from racing down the mountain. The $90,000 mitigation project, paid for with a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, was designed to protect the surrounding neighborhoods, Winter said.

“We don’t want more destruction,” he said.

Flying W owners now are focused on rebuilding the ranch, which included Old West storefronts, chuckwagon dinners and live music. In the next few months, crews will build a pole barn, which can seat from 600 to 800, and shows will return this summer three days a week.

“Our goal is to reopen before June 26 — the anniversary of the fire,” Winter said.

The barn is temporary and the Flying W Ranch will cater in meals until the long-term rebuild can take place, he said.

“We do plan on building Chuck Wagon differently,” he said.

Insurance questions

After the Waldo Canyon fire, business owners had a lot of questions about flood insurance, said Aikta Marcoulier, Small Business Development Center director.

“We all had to learn what flood insurance meant and what it covered,” she said.

The average flood claim in 2010 was about $28,000 and without flood insurance many have to cover the costs themselves, according to FEMA.

Business owners first need to find out if they are in a flood-risk zone, she said. Then they should develop a plan to notify and help customers respond in flash floods. And then review all insurance policies.

“A lot of businesses were waiting to see where they are (financially) … but now with threat of flash floods and the understanding that the SBA loan deadline is May 7, all of a sudden businesses are seeking help,” Marcoulier said.

The mitigation projects at Glen Eyrie and Flying W are expected to be completed this month. The city plans to take $10 million from its fund reserves to mitigate flood risks on Camp Creek and Douglas Creek.

If a flash flood happens, businesses have little time to react, Murphy said.

“You have got to know, if it happens, do we stay or do we go,” she said.

In a fire, people are used to the concept of evacuation. In a flash flood, the better option may be to stay in place, Murphy said.

“The biggest thing is make sure you have a plan and practice it,” she said.

Flood preparation check list

  • Prepare
  • Communicate
  • Protect business and property
  • Discuss business needs
  • Stay informed

For details go to www.springsgov.com/floodinfo

Business Disaster Preparedness

Who: Colorado Springs Small Business Development Center

What: Surviving and Thriving After the Waldo Canyon Fire panel discussion

When: 8 to 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 23

Where: Gold Hill Theater, 615 Midland Ave., Woodland Park

Details: Topics include insurance, finance, loans, marketing, recovery and resiliency

No fee. Register at http://tinyurl.com/cssbdc