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Decoding the colored utility flags you see at digging sites

The red flags surrounding the Heather Gardens retirement complex in Aurora are the ones you want to see - the ones that mark where you can and can't dig.

AURORA, Colo. — There are red flags all over Heather Gardens, near the site of last Friday's explosion. They're the kind of red flags you want to see when there is digging happening near utility lines.

You can't miss them, or the many other colored flags planted into the grass, which indicating utility lines nearby.

"Yellow which means there's a buried gas line, orange is communication or cable TV, and then we have blue, which is water, and green, which is sewer," said Colorado 811 spokeswoman Whitney Nichols.

The red flags indicate electric work. And some of the red ones around Heather Gardens warn: "Hand dig 18" either side of markings to depth of excavation to expose & verify precise location."

Some of the yellow flags, indicating a buried gas line, warn to "please use reasonable care."

"There's a minimum of 18 inches as the tolerance zone, that area you need to be extra careful when digging. That means you need to use hand digging tools. No big machinery," said Nichols. "Anyone who's digging, whether it's a homeowner or a contractor, near any flags, knows that there is an underground utility there, they need to dig with care."

Next has asked Aurora Fire if those flags or markings existed near the site of Friday's explosion. Aurora Fire said that answer is certainly going to be part of their investigation.

"It's not a perfect science, but it depicts the area where the utility should be," said Nichols. "It's for safety."

Colorado 811 does not do the markings. You contact 811 at least three days before you plan on digging, and then 811 contacts the proper utility companies to come out and mark the utility lines with flags and/or paint.

"As a homeowner, even if you're doing something as simple as planting a tree, planting a bush, gardening, anything like that, you are required to contact 811, but it is a free service," said Nichols.

Colorado 811 is also not a state-run service, and it's not subject to Colorado Open Records Act requests.

"We're funded by the utility companies," said Nichols. "A lot of people think we are a public entity. Some people think that we are part of the state, but Colorado 811 is a private non-profit."

RELATED | 'The house imploded on us:' Couple survives explosion at their Heather Gardens duplex

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RELATED | Heather Gardens sent retirees vital information about a gas leak via email

So, what happens if you dig in your yard without calling 811 and then you hit a utility that causes an outage? The utility company could bill you for the repairs and the loss of service.

Starting in January, a new state-run commission will form to handle complaints about damage to underground lines. That commission is part of a Senate Bill that was signed into law this past legislative session. The commission will have the power to issue civil penalties from $250 to $75,000.

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