Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas talks about efforts to prepare for the West Fork Complex Fire aftermath, such as flash flooding.
Courier photo by Ruth Heide
ALAMOSA — Even while the West Fork Complex Fire is still burning, a group has already formed to deal with the flooding potential such a devastating fire could produce.
For example, a watershed that before the fire might have produced 160 cubic feet per second (cfs) could have the potential to unleash 12,000 cfs once its vegetation is burned away, Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas explained during a Tuesday meeting of the Valley-wide water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable.
“We hope that doesn’t happen, but we want to be prepared for it,” he said, “just being able to warn people should that come to pass.”
The RG National Forest has activated BEAR (Burn Area Emergency Response), with that BEAR team coming to the San Luis Valley on Monday.
In addition, a broader group including local emergency coordinators, sheriffs, county commissioners and other governmental agencies has set up the Rio Grande Emergency Action Team (REACT) to follow up on potential negative impacts from this fire.
“We are on the ground to get something done as quickly as we can to deal with the issues that center around public safety,” said REACT Coordinator Tom Spezze.
The group is working on early detection methods to warn the public of flash flooding potentials on the upper Rio Grande.
Roundtable member Judy Lopez received permission from the Roundtable to contribute money from $2,000 educational funding to assist with communication such as distributing flyers to residents regarding the steps they should take in the event of flash flood warnings.
Spezze said because of the severity of the burn area in various places the potential will exist for water to just run off the landscape resulting in flash floods from the headwaters on down. One of the first priorities of REACT is to position early detection systems in areas that will alert folks of possible flooding in a hurry. Spezze said the governor issued an order to get radar in the San Luis Valley as quickly as possible for that purpose.
“That early warning capability, we need to have that right away,” he said.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is meeting next week in the Valley, is willing to front some money for early warning efforts, Spezze added.
He encouraged residents to take such warnings seriously. He said when the sky is clear and blue, it is hard to believe a 10-foot wall of water is on its way and there might be 20 minutes warning before it gets there.
“When people come around and try to educate you, listen to what they are saying, because it’s real,” he said.
Lopez said she did not want to create such hysteria that people would not patronize the upper Rio Grande, but people need to know what to do in the event of flash flooding.
Spezze said another priority of REACT is emergency restoration of the watershed below the Rio Grande Reservoir, and people with experience in restoration efforts, such as Heather Dutton, serve on that REACT sub-committee.
Dallas said nearly all of the 110,000 acres that have burned so far are on National Forest system land, but he anticipated impacts from the fire to private land downstream. The BEAR team will identify methods that can be used on National Forest property to mitigate those impacts. Efforts might include straw along stream banks or intentionally felling trees crosswise on hills to slow the movement of debris in the event of a rainstorm. In other burn areas in the state, efforts have included straw mixed with seed spread by helicopters.
The team will submit a report on their recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture in less than two weeks so funding can be authorized quickly to deal with this emergency, Dallas explained.
Roundtable Chairman Mike Gibson commented, “It is overwhelming.”
He said the effects of this fire could range from debris and pollution in the river to negative impacts on irrigators next year.
Dallas put the West Fork Complex into historical context. He said the Valley’s largest fire previous to this one was the Million Fire in 2002, and that was one-tenth the size of this one.
Dallas said when it comes to an emergency like this, the Valley works together.
“In the end the Valley is the Valley … When we need to get together, then we get together.”
Rio Grande County Commissioner Karla Shriver thanked Dallas and his team and other teams that have worked to fight the fire and protect the Valley. She said the fire caused immediate impacts, and the teams now being formed are looking at the long-term impacts yet to materialize.
“I think it’s being proactive for the Valley as a whole and our downstream neighbors in New Mexico and Texas,” she said. “That’s what we are trying to do now is think forward.”