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Special Report: Waldo Canyon burn scar, five years later

First of three parts studies recovery after fire

Waldo Canyon Burn Scar: Five Years Later

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The Waldo Canyon Fire in the mountains above west Colorado Springs in June 2012 remains burned in the memories of thousands who saw it or were affected by it.

But new drone video obtained by KRDO NewsChannel 13 provides spectacular aerial views that offer a new perspective on the scale of damage -- and the amount of recovery.

Drone pilot Scott Randall said the recovery progress can be hard to see from the ground.

"Without (those) aerials, you just couldn't get a sense of the grandiose effect the fire had," he said.

The video is believed to be the first recorded above the burn scar since the fire.

Experts say the 18,000 burned acres are healing, although the process is as slow and steady as expected.

"Vegetation has regrown on 70 percent of the burn scar," said Gordon Brenner, the emergency management coordinator for Colorado Springs.  "From my perspective, the recovery is progressing faster than I initially thought it would."

Brenner said most of the regrowth consists of grasses and shrubs, which absorb water and make the scar less vulnerable to some of the damaging flash floods, erosion and mudslides within a year after the fire.

But Carol Ekarius of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit agency that has supervised volunteers helping with forest recovery, said the forest's overall health will remain low until more trees are planted and established.

"Everyone expects us to just go in and start planting trees everywhere," she said.  "But you can't do that yet because the soil isn't stable enough to support them.  That's a much longer process, one that will take decades."

Ekarius described the scar's recovery as "fairly well along."

"In the fifth year after a fire, you see more burned trees fall," she said.  "But many of them can help reduce erosion and speed recovery.  We're still not out of the woods for a massive flood, either."

Kayle Higinbotham is well aware of the risk.  She lives in Wellington Gulch near U.S. 24 in Green Mountain Falls, a natural drainage area that was heavily damaged by post-Waldo flooding.

"My house flooded two years in a row," she said, sitting on one of 2,000 sandbags protecting her property.  "I have workmen here all the time, doing things.  It's cost me around $40,000."

Higinbotham said she has post-traumatic stress disorder because of the fire and floods.

"I think most of us were still in trauma from the fire," she said.  "So when we were told about the flood risk, we were in denial.  It was like nothing that I could have ever imagined or expected."

Workers have dug a trench along Higinbotham's property to improve drainage and avoid sediment accumulation that can worsen flood damage.

"I think the scar is healing and I'm glad to see it," she said.

Others disagree.

"I was kind of hoping to see a little more restoration by now," said David Carrow, who lives in Mountain Shadows where nearly 350 homes burned and the bare slopes are clearly visible. 

Dale Miner, a tourist from Saranac Lake, N.Y., compared the Waldo scar to a similar fire near his home.

"Our fire's burn scar came back in two or three years," he said.  "It wasn't like this."

Tuesday in part two of the series, we'll compare the Waldo scar to the much larger area burned by the 2002 Hayman fire -- still the largest in Colorado history.

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