To many in the Pikes Peak region, images of the Mile Marker 117 wildfire brought back uncomfortable memories of the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and the 2013 Black Forest fire.
Driven by winds gusting up to 60 mph, the 117 fire spread rapidly through dry grass and brush, consuming more than 41,000 acres and 23 homes. It signaled the early beginning of a fire season that could be as bad as the area’s worst fire years.
“The indices for this fire season look to be similar to 2012,” said Jim Schanel, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Fire Warden and incident commander for the 117 fire. “If we have fires start, we could have a quite devastating fire.”
The Waldo Canyon fire, which scorched 18,247 acres and destroyed 347 homes, claimed two lives and caused the evacuation of 32,000 people.
“We’ve seen in the past that a large fire can disrupt traffic flow and the ability of customers to get to businesses,” Schanel said. “Business owners suffer. Some people actually lost their businesses, and the economic impact was in the millions of dollars.”
Schanel and other fire officials say now is the time for businesses to prepare for a potentially disastrous fire event. They are urging business owners to take steps to mitigate fire danger around their business buildings and homes, and to prepare continuity plans in the event a fire or other disaster forces prolonged closure of their enterprises.
Fire season outlook
Because of drought conditions, El Paso County and Manitou Springs have already enacted fire restrictions that ban open burning, outdoor smoking and the use of fireworks.
Jeremy Taylor, program administrator with the Wildfire Mitigation Section of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, is keeping a close eye on fire outlook reports from the National Incident Management System, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Right now we are in a normal pattern, but May, June and July are expected to be more dry, warmer and windier,” Taylor said.
The department also monitors conditions such as moisture content of fuels in the greater Colorado Springs area.
“What we’re seeing right now is that grasses are very volatile because we haven’t received any moisture,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t take much for grasses to wick. It takes a little more time for the oaks and ponderosas to dry out. We will start monitoring those more closely in the next several months.”
Taylor agrees with Capt. Brian Vaughan, CSFD Public Information Officer, that the Pikes Peak region is a 365-day wildfire risk area.
“Whether it’s a wet or dry year, it can still burn on warm days,” Vaughan said. “That’s why we prepare no matter what.”
Since the fire disasters in 2012 and 2013, Colorado Springs firefighters have learned a lot, from the experts who landed here to help fight the Waldo and Black Forest fires, and from upwards of 9,500 hours of continuing education on fire behavior and how to fight wildfires.
All of the fire stations west of Interstate 25 are part of the department’s Wildland Fire Group, Vaughan said. Colorado Springs firefighters share information and resources with those in El Paso County, the Forest Service and other local jurisdictions such as Manitou Springs.
Partnerships are important, because wildfires require a lot of resources and most jurisdictions have limited equipment and personnel dedicated to wildfires.
“They’re terribly difficult to fight,” Vaughan said. “We respond and work with the county and others as needed. Our best defense may be getting people out; then we take care of property and the environment. But we still need to respond to other emergencies.”
Fire’s economic impacts
The natural beauty of the Pikes Peak region attracts residents and sustains tourism, the area’s biggest homegrown industry.
But its natural assets also render the area vulnerable to wildfires as people move into the Wildland Urban Interface — the area where homes and businesses are built on or near land that is prone to wildfire. According to FEMA, the interface covers more than 28,800 acres and includes a quarter of Colorado Springs’ population.
All of Manitou Springs is within the Wildland Urban Interface zone, said Chief John Forsett of the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department.
“If a wildfire meets with the right conditions — low humidity, high temperatures and extreme wind, everything becomes fuel, including homes and businesses,” Forsett said.
The Waldo Canyon fire, driven by those conditions, required the evacuation of Manitou Springs and closure of its businesses just as the summer tourist season was getting underway.
And national publicity about the fire caused many visitors to change their plans and take vacations elsewhere that year.
The effects of the fire reverberated throughout Manitou and Colorado Springs as businesses from small bed-and-breakfast inns to major attractions such as the Cog Railway saw their revenues drop by 40 percent or more. Some businesses closed, and it took years for others to recover from the fire and flooding that followed in 2013 and 2015.
It is difficult to quantify the full economic effects of a wildfire, but economist Tom Zwerlein, professor of finance at UCCS, estimated in a 2014 presentation that the Waldo Canyon fire caused a loss in sales of $9.5 million, a physical loss of $2.4 million and a loss of 76 jobs.
According to the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management, insurance claims resulting from the fire amounted to more than $453 million.
What businesses can do
Local fire departments are urging residents and business owners to take steps to make it easier for firefighters to defend their homes and businesses during a wildfire.
Even if structures are not in the direct path of a large wildfire, they can be ignited by embers that shoot from the flames. So it is important to make buildings as fire-resistant as possible.
“Business owners and people running businesses can do the same things homeowners can do ahead of time,” said Robin Adair, El Paso County Community Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.
Basic mitigation work includes creating defensible zones by clearing leaves and debris from around structures, keeping rain gutters clear and pruning lower branches from trees, among other measures.
A second step is to review insurance coverage.
“Many people make assumptions about their insurance that don’t always turn out to be true,” Adair said. “Make sure what your coverage is in the event of a fire, and update it if necessary.”
A third, crucial step is to plan for the survival of the business through a continuity plan.
“In putting together a plan to make sure your business is able to continue running, you want to take a look at what are the critical, time-sensitive business functions you need to perform and what are the resources you need for that,” Adair said. “Then you figure out how you would recover or replace those resources and what you could use instead if those were gone.
“Are there alternative locations you could use? Can employees telecommute for a while? Could you put together agreements with other businesses? Make sure those agreements are in place ahead of time.”
It’s important to be sure employees are familiar with the plan and that they practice evacuation procedures and other actions they will need to take.
“It takes some time and resources to analyze your critical needs, but it makes all the difference in the event of an emergency,” Adair said. “If you plan ahead of time, the sooner you’ll be up and running again. That’s better for the whole community; we’re all more resilient if everybody plans.”
El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Jacqueline Kirby advises business people to sign up with the 911 Authority, if they have not already done so, to receive emergency notifications such as evacuation orders.
To register with the emergency notification system, visit elpasoteller911.org.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department are preparing to launch Ready, Set, Go, part of a nationwide program to raise public awareness about disaster threats.
Business owners can access lots of information and tools to help develop a preparedness plan, including a PC-compatible business continuity planning suite, at ready.gov/business.
Information packets are available at the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s headquarters at 375 Printers Parkway and fire stations. In addition, the Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation team will schedule free, on-site consultations for business owners and managers who call 719-385-7342.
“We walk around businesses with owners or lessees and talk about the elements of a plan, management of the plan and what it should entail,” Taylor said. “We will attend meetings if they want to educate people. A lot of businesses haven’t reached out to us, but we would like to get more involved.”
Firefighters also are hoping businesses will help them spread the word about the risks of wildfires.
“The business community has always been proactive and interfaces with the public as much as we do,” Schanel said. “The tourists are here right at the height of fire season. It will help if they remind the public and their customers to be vigilant.”