No safety in the mountains 

City Sage

Look west. What do you see? Pikes Peak, Cheyenne Mountain, Cameron's Cone and the rest of our mountain backdrop.

Until the Waldo Canyon Fire, it hadn't changed much since I was born. Growing up, I assumed that the mountain landscape was safe, permanent and unchanging.

The city grew, U.S. Highway 24 was widened to four lanes, and Springs residents moved west, commuting from Green Mountain Falls, Cascade and Woodland Park. Many chose to live in quiet seclusion, among the cool pines and wildlife, often accessible only by steep driveways carved out of the rock and gravel.

Those of us who remained on the plains envied them. Who wouldn't trade a half-hour commute for the peace and tranquility of country life? No orange streetlights glaring into your bedroom windows, no motorcycles roaring by at 2 a.m., no trains clattering in the distance, no sirens, no annoying neighbors ... what's not to like?

Flood and fire shattered our illusions. Fire destroyed hundreds of homes, and subsequent flooding took its toll. Homeowners near the burn scar found themselves overwhelmed by runoff during summer rains.

Here's an excerpt from a recent email sent to the Independent by Cascade homeowner Robin Guthrie:

"We are very close to the Waldo Canyon burn scar. We have struggled to get help with erosion issues ... but funding really hasn't been easy to get, as our driveway is private. Even when we have debris wash into Hwy. 24, we don't get assistance from [the Colorado Department of Transportation], to at least level out the road. The issue is that the flooding, debris and gravel is coming from National Forest Land but the assistance that was given only helped inside the burn scar area, even though we are vastly affected.

"The disastrous rain we had on 08.09.13, brought down enough water and landslide material to raise the height of the driveway about a foot, higher in places toward the top. Then we had 5 days of straight rain last week that has caused a natural spring from up above to flow heavier and start to gouge out the upper portion of the driveway in a major way. We have a good 100 feet in length of a carved-out gorge where the road used to be. You can stand inside and be about 4 feet down. The soil is so soft that your feet sink in ..."

Thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Robin and her neighbors actually may get some help. They're slogging through the application process and are hopeful that the agency can help with debris removal and redirecting flooding from the burn scar. And Guthrie herself notes that their hardships hardly compare with what others have experienced.

But they're wrestling with the same reality bedeviling many of us: We're not safe in the mountains.

What happened to our calm, pine-scented forests, to our cozy homes that were, as Cedar Heights marketers once put it, "Minutes away, worlds apart"?

Welcome to reality. Our mountain landscapes have often been suddenly and violently altered since Europeans first came to the Pikes Peak region in the early 19th century.

In the 1850s, a vast fire consumed the forest from Ute Pass to South Park, burning well over a million acres. The forest had recovered nicely 50 years later when gold was discovered in Cripple Creek, which became a city of 20,000 souls within a few years. Miners felled the trees, railroad builders gouged out three railway lines to Victor and Cripple Creek, mining fouled pristine streams, wildlife populations plummeted ... and the boom ended.

Cripple Creek and Victor were depopulated, and the once-thriving town of Gillett was abandoned. In less than two decades, substantial cities of brick and stone devolved into depopulated ghost towns, eventually revived by gamblers of another era.

The men and women who lived in the mountains a century ago may have thought that their world was solid and secure — as good as gold. And some of today's mountain dwellers may feel as secure as their predecessors. Surely things will get back to normal. We can't have another cycle of fire and flood, of broken highways and charred forests.

Or can we?

We're not safe any more — if we ever were.


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