COLORADO SPRINGS — After the Waldo Canyon Fire tore through the Pike National Forest and, closer to home, through neighborhoods in Colorado Springs, a lot of attention went to recovery – so many had lost so much.
But it’s not just the people who have worked to recover from the fire, it’s also the landscape.
Now, grasses have begun to fill in the burn scar, but 10 years ago, the area looked completely different.
And the impacts we sustained after the fire, were highly destructive on their own.
Floods and mudslides wreaked havoc. Even a quarter inch of rain spelled disaster for the area.
The water triggered debris flows and pushed rushing water out over Highway 24.
“If all those loose soils, you know, basically burned loose soils, there’s trees that were burned as well. The root systems are basically torched. A little bit of wind, a little bit of rain can knock this down and carry those downstream, said Greg Heavener, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The Waldo Canyon Fire burned plants and vegetation that would have been able to absorb heavy rain,but burn scarns react differently.
“The chemical compounds of the soil changes immediately,” added Klint Skelly, lead meteorologist with NWS.
“So we’re kind of having to reassess, relearn how that water is going to react. With basically what’s effectively concrete or asphalt at that point in time,” said Heavener.
After a fire, burned vegetation coats the soil, making it hydrophobic. It begins to repel water instead of absorbing it. And, in that state, it doesn’t take much to cause a flash flood, which carries debris downstream extremely quickly.
“You have a bunch of dead trees that are still in the burn scar area. That debris flow could also include, you know, dirt, mud, boulders, but also large logs from trees,” said Skelly.
And it only takes a matter of minutes for the impact to happen.
“Depending on the steepness of the area that was burned as well, too, the quicker the water can runoff into those creeks and rivers causing the downstream impacts to lives and property,” said Heavener.
Flash floods are most extreme in the first five years after a wildfire. In the case of the Waldo Canyon Fire, the Pikes Peak Region was lucky – some burn scars can take up to 10 years before showing signs of recovery.
Part of the regrowth we’re seeing now came thanks to community mitigation efforts.
“[Replanting] some of those native grasses and trees to help solidify that soil,” said Heavener. “So that way it cannot move during heavy rainfall. That was done for years after Waldo Canyon occurred.”
Certainly, obvious evidence of Waldo remains in 2022 – burned trees and empty space. But there are now also signs of regrowth in an area now under close watch.