COLORADO SPRINGS — 250. That’s how many homes were part of the Cedar Heights Development when the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire broke out in 2012.
It’s a day residents will never forget.
“I saw the column of smoke and so immediately began the evacuation process,” said Nancy Neale Martin, a Cedar Heights resident.
“It burned out at the Pike National Forest, crossed over Williams Canyon and burned into the northwest corner of our 300-acre conservation, it burned right into a mitigation area,” said Dick Standaert, a Firewise Champion and Cedar Heights resident.
After leaving their homes behind, each day was filled with a flood of emotions for families.
“What was it like waiting all week? Watching the news. Thinking about your property and not being back yet,” asked 5News reporter, Caroline Peters.
“Just looking upon it and seeing all of our homes still standing each and every day, it made you get through to the next day,” said Martin.
As the entire city of Colorado Springs worried about what would be left after the Waldo Canyon Fire, those within the Cedar Heights community held onto a little bit of hope.
“It was disheartening, yet at the same time, in some ways empowering that we knew that we had done so many things in advance and we had so many things in place to allow the agencies to defend this neighborhood so it felt really positive in that way as well but just terrified that we wouldn’t ever be coming back,” said Martin.
The Cedar Heights neighborhood had been working on several fire mitigation projects over a five-year span before the Waldo Canyon fire broke out.
“In 2008, we did a pilot project, a very small number of acres to demonstrate how you would do a fire mitigation project and what it would like,” said Standaert.
The project was a success, so the community continued its mitigation efforts.
A big part of the fire mitigation program was removing dead, unhealthy trees, creating a defensible space that would change the behavior of a wildfire.
And when Waldo Canyon broke out… the community’s mitigation efforts proved to work. Not a single home within Cedar Heights burned down.
“The fire dropped down the ground, it continued to burn but the fire department people then had the opportunity to fight the fire. They were able to then have an escape route, so it was safe for them… and they were able to stop the fire from expanding any more than 25 acres into our conservation easement,” said Standaert.
At the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire, the Colorado Springs Fire Department had given the Cedar Heights community about 300 hundred thousand dollars towards fire mitigation through grants but look at the big picture. That’s not even half the value of one of these houses
The mitigation work done in this community hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Colorado Springs Fire Department runs a nationally recognized Firewise USA program and other states like California look at the Cedar Heights as the example of how to prepare for a wildfire.
“If they can take what we did and how we learned from Waldo Canyon Fire in Cedar Heights and then establish that in their community safer in the long run if there is a wildfire event there,” said Ashley Whitworth, fire mitigation program administrator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
And those who live in the Cedar Heights community, want to continue to be the example of how humans, forests and wildfires can coexist.
“We love living here. We can’t think of a better place to live but you also have to think about what you need to do to be able to safely live in this area,” said Standaert.
“We all see ourselves as stewards of this beautiful place,” said Martin.
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