PHOTOS BY BRENDAN YOUNG
Pikes Peak looked like a smoldering volcano for the majority of the 2012 summer and the scars from that debilitating disaster are still there.
In the Mountain Shadows neighborhood where over 300 households burned to the ground and local residents lost their memories, homes are starting to be rebuilt while others still show signs of the raging inferno that consumed thousands of acres in June and July.
The Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive fire in Colorado history and the most expensive fire containment in the history of the United States, ravaged Colorado Springs, costing approximately $352.6 million dollars.
But those costs are still rising as officials in the Pikes Peak region work to prevent such a disaster from ever occurring again and to counteract any consequential emergencies, including flooding or other burns.
Now Waldo Canyon and the local community are attempting to recover from the devastating forest fire that forced the evacuation of 32,000 people, claimed 2 lives, and instigated a migration of firefighters from throughout the country.
“For a relatively small fire it has enormous consequences for a large population…,” said Al Hahn, Ranger for the Pikes Peak Region. “I don’t know how to put that into words or perspective, but it’s pretty important.”
The Forest Service has been working tirelessly since before the fire stopped burning to rehabilitate the impacted region.
“In 2012 we probably did about 20 different things [after the fire] and now we are doing a complete look at what needs to be done next and what the priorities are,” said Barb Timock, Public affairs Officer for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. “You have to set priorities because you don’t have enough time or money to tackle everything at once. So it’s a large effort and it has a lot of stake holders.”
The fire, which investigators have concluded was set by human means, is currently under investigation by local authorities.
“Members of the Task Force have conducted a thorough investigation and believe they know what caused the fire but will not share that information publicly in order to protect the integrity of the investigation,” said Barbara Miller, Senior Communications Specialist with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
“The cause of the fire has not been released except to say, it was human caused,” Miller said. “We do not know if it was intentional or accidental. At this time, there are no suspects.”
Waldo Canyon was a very popular spot for CC kids to hike, run, and enjoy the beautiful Colorado wilderness until the massive fire began on June 23, 2012.
In order to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again, local officials are taking many precautions.
“[It’s] a complicated question that requires serious thought and consideration…The truth is, there is no way of preventing someone from starting a fire,” Miller said. “Officers are vigilant in their duties in looking for suspicious individuals and activities but need the help of our citizens. We always encourage citizens to report suspicious persons to their local law enforcement agency. The City has also continued with its mitigation efforts, which have proven helpful and effective.”
Police are hopeful that they will locate those responsible for the fire.
“The Task Force continues to ask for leads from our community and they follow up on each and every lead, documenting their findings,” Miller said. “They are hopeful that the person responsible for setting this fire will come forward or someone who may have knowledge about the person will share their information.”
The burn area remains closed to citizens as the Forest Service works to restore the once blooming forest. Officials say they hope to reopen the vast expanse as soon as possible.
That reopening will have to happen in sections, however.
“We are looking at opening up Rampart Reservoir and the campgrounds around there around memorial day,” Forest Ranger Hahn said. “The reason for that is because they were less effected by the fire… I think we can manage people and provide for the recovery of the landscape [there] at the same time.”
One major issue that has arisen with the area is its potential for causing flooding in low-lying areas below.
Even this week’s recent snowfall poses a risk for neighborhoods near the burn site.
“Moisture is fantastic and we haven’t had any moisture but any we get is terrific,” Timock said. “It’s a double edged sword. If [the recent snow] was a lot heavier and it melted quickly it could cause sediment to erode. We just don’t know what we can expect. We are working with communities to stabilize the soil and to avoid those catastrophic flooding events.”
Mending those potentially life-threatening issues will take time, however.
When the fire began in June, and before the last embers had smoldered out, the Forest Service began implementing their burn area emergency restoration. Not surprisingly their immediate response was to suppress the burn, but after that officials initiated burn area emergency response.
With that response now winding down, the Service is working on long-term recovery.
“We are asking for the public to be patient and [to know that] the Forest Service is here for the long hall…,” Timock said. “We are doing what we can and Mother Nature also has to take its course.”
For Hahn, who became Ranger just days after the fire was contained, recovery has been a tough task. Nevertheless, the seasoned veteran who has been working for the Forest Service since 1979 says he has seen this type of disaster before.
When he enters the burn area, he says it conjures one main emotion: “It’s more sad than a lot of things,” he said. “Overall its sad to think that we lost all that.”
Staff Writer Kiki Lenihan contributed to the reporting of this article.