Five years ago today the Waldo Canyon Fire burned through the front range of the Rocky Mountains along the west side of Colorado Springs, Colorado. My wife and I moved to the area about a year earlier from a region of the country that had ample rain. As such, neither of us had ever experienced a wide-spread forest fire. When we first saw the column of smoke rising out of the mountains near our home we were alarmed to say the least. The smoke was dense, but the wind wasn’t blowing at that point so no one in the community seemed overly concerned. The daily lives for those of us who call the Springs home continued with relative normalcy.
Unfortunately, like the Front Range is prone to do, the wind did pick up and in an overwhelming manner. Winds with 70mph gusts pushed the fire east towards the city and within a few days the fire had burned through more than 18,000 acres, leaving a massive scar on a stunning landscape. On the worst of the days, the mountains that bordered the city appeared as if they had become active volcanoes ablaze as the fire flowed down their sides. The dense smoke permeated the sky nearly blocking out the sun. The entire atmosphere in all directions was aglow with a bright orange tint as if it too was on fire.
It took nearly three weeks of hard work for our brave firefighters to completely contain the fire. It was several more weeks before the fire was completely out. When the smoke cleared the landscape was changed, 344 homes were gone along with countless possessions, and 2 lives had been lost. It is estimated that the insurance claims for the Waldo Canyon Fire totaled more than $352.6 million according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. This was the most expensive forest fire in Colorado’s history.
After the Waldo Canyon Fire
The ramifications of this fire cost untold amounts of money years after the last ember went out. In September of 2013, Colorado Springs was hit with a devastating flood and mudslide that tore through the area adjacent to the southeastern side of the burn scar. This flooding was a direct result of the scorched earth from the Waldo Canyon Fire. Some flood mitigation work had been started prior to this event, but afterwards these efforts went into full swing.
The investigation into the cause of the Waldo Canyon Fire concluded that the fire was caused by a human. However, they never could say if it was caused by recklessness or intentionally. No one was ever caught. It is hard to fathom how a person could cause such immense devastation. How could anyone get up every morning knowing that they were responsible for that kind of destruction? That is beyond my comprehension.
Here we are five years later. The burnt trees still stand tall as a reminder of those horrifying days. The grass and small shrubs have started to once again reclaim the scorched soil. Birds and small rodents can be found amongst the burnt trees. The city has adapted and the mitigation work has been completed although the top soil that ends up in the retaining ponds has to be excavated after large rainfalls. The experts say that between year seven and year ten, the trees will start to fall and that those will have to be removed as well.
The much loved hiking trail that led into Waldo Canyon, and were the fire that bears its name started, remains closed along with so many other popular trails on the west side of Colorado Springs. I am reminded by the circumstances that life is resilient and that fire is a natural occurrence, often necessary for nature to thrive. I would just caution that our actions whether intentional or unintentional can have consequences that ripple through time in ways that we never imagined possible.