•  Carrier


Responding in a Crisis

Task Force Pioneer Brings Communities Back Together

In September 2013, when near-biblical flooding threatened the very sense of community and all but destroyed the mobility of many Colorado residents, engineers of the National Guard were called upon to provide critical support during the response and recovery.


By Lt. Col. Michael J. Turley, M.SAME, ARNG, and Maj. David J. Gibb, M.SAME, ARN


Colorado flooding damage

Flooding caused by torrential rains in September 2013 destroyed parts of U.S. Highway 36, a 25-mi thoroughfare connecting the communities of Lyons, Estes Park, and Pinewood Springs, Colo. Estes Park is referred to as the “Gateway to the Rockies” and US 36 is the prime access point for the majority of winter visitors, which makes the highway critical to the local and state economies. PHOTOS COURTESY UTAH ARMY NATIONAL GUARD


Military engineers, much like Swiss Army Knives, are eminently versatile and reliable. They are compact, powerful and invaluable in emergencies. And they are ready when called upon.

Record-setting rains in September 2013 caused catastrophic flooding along Colorado’s Front Range, particularly in Boulder and Larimer Counties. A state disaster was declared by Gov. John Hickenlooper. U.S. Highway 36, a 25-mi thoroughfare between Lyons and Estes Park, was devastated, and the community of Pinewood Springs, was isolated. Outside of helicopter access and game-trails, these communities were cut off from each other, and, in some cases, the rest of the world.

Due to the significant time constraints and the need for specialized capabilities, Gov. Hickenlooper enacted an Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is a national mutual-aid partnership agree­ment that allows state-to-state assistance during state or federally declared emer­gencies. When state resources are over­whelmed, other states, to include National Guard units, step-in and fill shortfalls under Title 32, United States Code (USC).

The town of Lyons is located at the confluence of the North St. Vrain and South St. Vrain creeks. An historic community that dates from 1881, Lyons, population about 2,000, is known for its sandstone quarry and natural beauty. US 36 serves as an access point to the Rocky Mountain National Park and to the city water supply, which is stored in a reservoir in the canyon. Pinewood Springs is an unincorporated township located at the top of the pass between Lyons and Estes Park. It does not have a full-time fire department nor a full-time police force. In the initial sequences of the emergency, some 200 full-time residents had to be evacuated via National Guard helicopters. Estes Park is referred to as the “Gateway to the Rockies.” With approximately 5,000 citizens, its population surges to 10,000 visitors during special events. US 36 is the prime access point for the majority of winter visitors. Access during the winter months is critical to the overall economic condition of the city and the state.


As part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and under the author­ity of the Governor of Utah, the Utah Army National Guard’s 1457th Engineer Battalion was activated as Task Force (TF) Pioneer on Sept. 23. The task force was organized to repair US 36 and to provide mission command for all engineer units dispatched (Army and Air) from participating states. The operation was dubbed “Sapper Fury” as a nod to combat engineers throughout history. The activation of an engineer battalion from a neighboring state was part of a strategy to increase engineer expertise and staff capability. A goal of Dec. 1, 2013 was set to complete a combat road/trail over the mountain.

The technical complexity of the mission was not the only challenge the engineers faced. Compounding the disaster was the looming federal government shutdown that occurred during October and ultimately would last 16 days. National Guard support managed to continue on schedule under the authority of Title 32, USC, and the governors of the supporting states.

Gov. Hickenlooper announced the authorization of state funds to keep National Guard members working. “We can’t afford to lose one day in rebuilding areas destroyed or damaged by the floods,” he said. “Our National Guard troops are an invaluable part of the team working on the recovery. We need them to stay on the job.”


Four states (Colorado, Kansas, Montana and Utah) would activate units for Operation Sapper Fury. Outside of the enduring command structure, 378 soldiers and airmen would rotate into and out of TF Pioneer. In addition to the Joint-Service organization of the task force, inter-agency support between the Colorado Departments of Transportation (CDOT), Environmental Protection and Public Safety would be facilitated through an Army Engineer Coordination Cell (ECC).

The ECC provided technical liaison, Army expertise to civilian agencies and quality control throughout the project. Soldiers from the 117th Space Support Battalion (Colorado Army National Guard) also were incorporated into the ECC to provide real-time satellite imagery. Joint Task Force Centennial/Support Operations Center provided liaison between TF Pioneer, ECC, CDOT, and facilitated other inter-service/inter-agency coordination. 

To utilize assets most effectively and to determine a timeframe for project comple­tion, TF Pioneer developed a resource-based critical path analysis project plan. As part of the plan, a detailed reconnais­sance to include critical measurements with quantified sub-tasks and a Gantt chart was completed. In stark contrast to CDOT’s initial assessment, TF Pioneer estimated completion as early as Oct. 31. As safety enhancements were prescribed, the project was extended to the first week of November.The road was completed with a paved 6-in (winter-wear) cap and additional features such as speed-attenuator barrels and jersey-barriers were installed.



Throughout the reconstruction, engi­neer equipment operators repeatedly had to enter the stream-channel to temporarily divert the flow around structures or away from the embankment as material was being hauled and placed. During the early stages, much of the material used to shore-up the embankment toe was harvested directly from the large diameter boulders that had been washed down the corridor during the flood.

Fortunately, the ECC had filed an Emergency Section 404 permit through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which legally permitted the equipment to operate within the stream channel on an “as-needed” basis. This authority allowed immediate remediation of the river chan­nel and an expedited construction plan. When operators did enter the stream, they attempted to improve armor channel embankments adjacent to civilian homes to reduce the threat of continued erosion while minimizing environmental exposure.

During the deluge, abutments to the bridge connecting County Road 80 to US 36 were severely scoured and under­mined, exposing the undergirding and steel H-piles that supported the super-structure. TF Pioneer, at the request of CDOT, was tasked to design-build a solution to protect the bridge from future events and daily wave action. This “shoring” of the structure would facilitate the construction of a bypass road to a damaged dam that provided water to the community of Lyons.

While rockery walls (retaining walls) are not recommended beyond a few feet in height, unless mechanically reinforced or stabilized, the engineers of TF Pioneer designed a suitable solution. Approximately 100-yd³ of controlled low-strength material (CLSM), or flowable fill, was used at two separate stages in order to reduce the lateral soil pressure on the backside of the struc­ture. Incorporation of CLSM also served to fill voids in and around the H-piles and beneath the concrete pile-cap as well as areas where soil placement and compaction was impossible.Upon completion, the wall stood approximately 20-ft high at the bridge abutment, tapering down to 5-ft over 110-ft. This enabled CDOT to complete the repair of the road to the dam and facilitate an inspection of the dam itself.

replacing culverts

Engineers replace a culvert on U.S. Highway 36 during Operation Sapper Fury. In total, Task Force Pioneer removed more than 1,155-ft of damaged guard rail and placed 21 culverts during the reconstruction work.



During the flood, several dams had been breached near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Little Thompson River, result­ing in a massive wave and debris flow that destroyed the County Road 47 river-cross­ing connecting to US 36. Approximately 50 homes caught behind the crossing were in dire need of winter preparation. With no other access points, TF Pioneer was tasked with constructing a hasty-bridge crossing. A total of 10, 8-ft concrete box-culverts were procured from Denver International Airport, transported to the project site 40-mi away, then sited and placed.

Through the efforts of TF Pioneer, this hasty-bridge crossing would be envisioned, designed, planned and executed to comple­tion within 72 hours—ensuring the homes were prepared for winter.



On Nov. 4, 2013, US 36 re-opened. The road, and all associated projects, were completed 28 days ahead of even the most optimistic initial estimates.

TF Pioneer had resurrected a 25-mi moun­tainous road winding 8,200-ft above sea level. It had activated, moved and commanded 378 soldiers and airmen from four states during a federal government shutdown. It had moved 44 pieces of equipment over 500-mi from Utah to Colorado with little preparation or warning. It had managed 77 pieces of engineer equipment including civilian-contracted equipment. It had hauled 34,200-yd³ of material and emplaced 12,690-yd³ of native material, including 60-yd³ of boulders for armor and retaining structures. It had poured 100-yd³ of flowable fill and placed over 120-yd of geotextile fabric. It had removed more than 1,155-ft of damaged guard rail and placed 21 culverts. It had reconnected three vital communities to each other, and the state of Colorado.

Celebrated as a rare governmental success story during that period, execu­tion is owed to the innate strength of the National Guard structure. This type of joint-service, inter-agency, civil response requires intense interaction between state agencies and liaison between Domestic Operations Cells and Domestic All-Hazards Response Teams. Incorporation of “space support” also was significant to the overall execution. Real-time imagery reduced reconnaissance time and facilitated medical evacuation planning. Though not typical in engineer staffs, “space soldiers” are a powerful resource to commanders on the ground.

TF Pioneer accomplished its mission during a dynamic and challenging political time. Three Colorado communities were reconnected thanks to state-to-state coop­eration, the National Guard’s innate multi-service organization, complex coordination with civilian state agencies, and the skill and the ingenuity of citizen-soldiers and citizen-airmen engineers.

The recovery of private property could start, the mountain corridor was made safe for winter travel, and the regional economy was able to begin its recovery. The Swiss Army Knives had proven critical indeed.



Lt. Col. Michael J. Turley, M.SAME, ARNG, is Commander, and Maj. David J. Gibb, M.SAME, ARNG, is Executive Officer, 1457th Engineer Battalion, Utah Army National Guard. They can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.