Fire, floods in Arizona offer lessons to Colorado Springs

By Garrison Wells Updated: June 11, 2013 at 2:02 pm • Published: June 10, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

In 2010, a raging wildfire northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., tore across the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks.

It was started by a campfire in the Coconino National Forest on June 20.

Fed by high winds, by the time it was contained on June 30, it had eaten up 15,075 acres of the Coconino National Forest and more than a thousand residents were evacuated.

Sound familiar?

There were a couple of major differences between the Schultz fire and last year's Waldo Canyon fire above Colorado Springs.

In the Schultz fire, no homes were hit.

Waldo destroyed 347 homes.

The other? They've had their first burn scar flood.

A flood from the Waldo burn scar could happen any day.

The blazes, said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, were eerily similar.

"It looks like our fire," Clark said, "but they don't have the compact and dense urban piece. They don't have the neighborhoods like we have."

Clark recently returned from a trip to the area where she met with officials. She plans to invite them to El Paso County to share their experiences.

"We'd like to really get down to the brass tacks," Clark said. "We want to learn from what they've learned. There are opportunities that we haven't thought of."

There are plenty of lessons.

Among them, expect the first flood to be more damaging than predicted, agencies need to work together cooperatively, scientific studies need to be completed to get grant money and to make sure the correct mitigation steps are taken.

Total cost of the fire and flood were pegged by researchers at Northern Arizona University at between $133 million and $147 million.

Flooding came quickly over the Schultz burn scar.

With a month of the wildfire, Flagstaff was drenched by its fourth-wettest monsoon season, which flooded residential areas, destroyed a neighborhood and killed a 12-year-old girl.

The flood, said Mandy Metzger, Coconino County supervisor, was worse than anticipated.

"It inundated homes that we thought would be safe," she said. "That was our first surprise. The flooding was far more significant than we'd anticipated."

Officials were shell-shocked, said Lucinda Andreani, public works director for Coconino County.

The burn scar was hit with an inch and quarter of rain in 12 minutes, she said. In about an hour, two inches had fallen.

"The area was full of sediment," she said. "There was ash. It was unbelievable. There was water everywhere. Everywhere got hit."

Homes below from the Waldo burn scar could see the same kind of flooding.

"It's probably going to be worse there than what you are planning for," Andreani said.

Indeed, as bad as the fire was, flooding will be worse, Metzger said.

"Fires are terrible, but they have a beginning and an end," she said. "Flooding has a very long life."

One study has already indicated it will take 75 years for the Waldo canyon area return to its condition before the fire.

The biggest flood challenge was finding resources to develop infrastructure, Metzger said. They brought in experts, did hydrology, hydraulic and sediment studies and made several trips to Washington, D.C.

Going to D.C. "worked for us well," she said. "Frankly, we talked to anybody who would listen. We knocked on a lot of doors in D.C."

They applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency grant money. To date, they have obtained more than $15 million for mitigation, Andreani said.

County officials also found taxpayers willing to shoulder some of the cost. They raised the flood district tax from 20 cents to 40 cents per $100 of property value.

"We doubled the tax," Metzger said. "The board of supervisors was pretty courageous, but the residents didn't protest. The challenge is that even if you have federal funding and federal partners, you still have to come up wit the county match."

If the biggest challenge was digging up the resources for flood protection and mitigation, the biggest lesson officials learned was the need for cooperation among agencies.

"We learned that it's really important to bring in all the partners you will need, whether it's jurisdictional, regulatory or for funding. Get everybody together so they all have the same information moving forward," Metzger said. "That's certainly one of the things that we'd recommend right off the bat."

For the Schultz fire, a dozen jurisdictions were pulled together.

They had "different visions and different dollars for different things," Metzger said. "Everybody was willing, but they all stopped at their jurisdictional boundaries. To cross the boundaries and to find a more holistic solution, to bring everybody together was important."

Recovery was broken into three categories, Andreani said.

The first was flood preparation and began immediately after the fire, the second was flood response and the third flood mitigation.

"We can't eliminate the flooding," she said. "But we're trying to employ these mitigation efforts to reduce the impacts."

Phone banks were developed to call residents about flood potential 8 to 10 hours a day, concrete barriers were erected, community meetings were held, additional rain gauges were placed on the burn scar, residents in the flood area were urged to get weather radios.

"We won't be past it for many, many, many years," Andreani said. "We've lost the normal watershed functioning. You guys are going to see that. You lose the capacity for the watershed to manage the water."

But perhaps the most important lesson, she said, is not to give up.

"As you work with your partners, you're going to have challenges," she said. "You really have to have the attitude that we will continue to pursue this. Let's get in a room, let's work together, that was a very successful strategy. Diligence and perseverance are really critical."

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