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Meteorologists recall the Waldo Canyon fire, 10 years later

Waldo Canyon Meteorologists
Posted at 11:56 AM, Jun 23, 2022

Waldo Fire timeline

Saturday, June 23, 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire starts in the Pike National Forest and mandatory evacuations begin in southern Mountain Shadows.

Sunday, June 24, 2012, the fire grows to 3,600 acres and evacuations become more widespread, into Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012, the fire roars into Colorado Springs, ultimately burning 347 homes and killing 2 people.

Evacuations are lifted on July 1, and the fire is officially contained by July 10.

Weather conditions setting the stage for fire, meteorologists take note

Jennifer Stark, who now serves as the Meteorologist in Charge (MIC) at the National Weather Service (NWS) in Boulder, was the MIC at the NWS office in Pueblo at the time of the Waldo Canyon Fire. She recalls the weather conditions in June 2012 and notes, "I was very, very nervous even before the fire started, that we were going to have a significant fire."

The drought monitor at the time shows the incredibly dry pattern across Colorado. 97.7% of the state was in at least severe drought, 45.8% being in extreme drought. Drought conditions had taken hold after a strong La Nina period between 2010-2012. Sounds familiar? Colorado is likely to go into a rare, 3 years in a row of La Nina conditions in the winter (2019-2022).

Drought Monitor from June 26, 2012

Craig Eliot Cisney, known as Craig Eliot, worked at KOAA News5 for 18 years and recalls being on-air for up to 14 hours at a time during Waldo. He says leading up to the fire "...we had this unprecedented dry pattern of lack of moisture and available fuels. All the ingredients that you would never hope would come together for a fire came together for this fire"

During the month of June in 2012, Colorado Springs experienced 9 daily record highs, from the 17th to the 30th. This also included the all-time record high for the city at 101° on June 26th.

Daily record highs broken in Colorado Springs in June 2012

Cisney remembers, "[the] record high temperature of 101 in Colorado Springs, and that had never happened before. And then you had 65-mile-an-hour winds."

Stark notes the fire may have intensified to the weather. "The heat that day was really intense am sure the fire contributed to that and the downslope movement of the fire and the heat coming off the fire."

The Waldo Fire becomes destructive

Stark somberly recollects when the fire moved into Colorado Springs, "and I remember pretty vividly being in the office multiple days, leading up to the afternoon that it moved into Colorado Springs, and I had actually attempted to go home on the 26th. But I turned around, came right back into the office, and was there into the early morning hours because we had, you know, evacuations of tens of thousands of people in Colorado Springs. We knew that it was burning homes. And of course, our greatest fear was that we were losing lives.... and also for the forecasters in the office, we feel like, there's not a lot that we can do. So it's a very helpless feeling."

The perfect storm of weather conditions and fire behavior allowed the flames to move at rapid speed.

"But the computer models were kind of saying you're going to have these strong winds, but they can't predict the winds that the fires create. Because there's no computer model probably on the planet. That's that smart. Because the flames with this fire were at some points 150 feet tall, they were higher actually than the Hayman fire, which at the time, was the largest fire in the state's history" says Cisney.

Having had to outrun a wildfire himself in the past, Cisney mentions that "as fast as that fire moved, it is truly remarkable that there was not a higher loss of life in Colorado Springs in El Paso County because they just couldn't fight it."

A new threat looms: flash flooding

Stark remembers, "we had put out a flash flood watch, I think it was right around July 3. And understandably, people thought we really need the rain. But we were feeling like we don't know what rain is going to do on this burned area."

Wildfires become a scar on the landscape for years, if not decades, after the fire is out. Charred land can become a dangerous breeding ground for flash floods and debris flow. Stark explains the science behind why the NWS in Pueblo immediately became concerned about flash flooding.

"So once you have an intense wildfire, and the soil actually becomes hydrophobic, so if it's severely burned, and there's no tree canopy, there's no vegetation left. There is a layer in the soil that's actually hydrophobic. So that means the water doesn't penetrate through the soil. It just runs off. Almost as if you had paved that area."

The NWS in Pueblo reorganized their staff to make sure the Waldo burn scar was constantly watched. Stark says, "devoting one individual to monitoring that burn scar, I think was huge for us… So I'm proud of that workload. And that effort that our staff made in the decisions that we made, we weren't always perfect with the warnings or even with the watches, but we, you know, we really devoted staff resources and time to that."

Unfortunately, the flash flood threat was ongoing for years to come, with several destructive flash floods in the Rampart Range, Manitou Springs, and Colorado Springs.

Cisney says, "I remember, it's very vivid, seeing these horrible images of all this water mud and debris coming roaring through the rampart range and into communities like Manitou Springs."

The focus quickly turned toward preventing as much flood damage as possible. Stark looks back on "the amount of mitigation work that was done to keep that burns car from impacting areas was just incredible in my mind, you know, I really kept wondering, you know, what can be done and they, El Paso County and Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, a lot of those areas, the Navigators up in Glen Eyrie, they just did a tremendous amount of work to try and save property and mitigate some of the hazards from this burn scar."

Lessons learned, and science continues

Unfortunately, destructive fires and flash floods are a reality in Colorado. It provides an opportunity for learning and planning.

Stark says, in reference to NOAA in Boulder, "there's a lot of science being done even in this building by some of the other NOAA labs and other federal partners as well to research those things to hopefully improve our understanding of those burned areas and how they respond to rainfall."

After leading the NWS through disasters such as the Waldo Canyon Fire, Black Forest Fire, East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fires, and recently the Marshall fire, she is a veteran of wildfire response. She encourages Coloradans to be ready for a fire. "It's just a reminder to any of us that it could happen at any time. You know, and we really all need to be prepared to evacuate quickly. Take those evacuation notices from our emergency management partners that you know, they tell us to get out we need to get out and have your go-kit ready to go You know, it's all of us. We're all at risk. If we live in Colorado, it's potentially it could happen to anybody."

Cisney has a similar sentiment, to be responsible and ready. He warns, "know that one person not listening to a fire ban is enough to change the life of 1000s of people..." He further advises "you have to look back because these were lessons that history has taught us that no community should have to repeat. And it would be a shame if we weren't prepared for the next one in the future because we had not learned from the ones in the past."

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