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Fire debris, flash flooding pose threats

Modified: Wednesday, Jul 24th, 2013

The Rio Grande Headwaters could fall victim to heavy sediment loads that could impact the entire watershed. Ash was already starting to make its way down the hillsides last week where the Papoose Fire burned. Courier photos by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

RIO GRANDE/MINERAL COUNTY — Post West Fork Complex Fire (WFCF) threat assessments are still underway in the Rio Grande National Forest, contributing to a plan of attack focused on keeping people safe from flooding, ash and debris.

The Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT) and the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), a national forest response team, met on Monday afternoon in Creede to coordinate findings and discuss options to keep the Rio Grande Watershed in order.

“A lot of good work has taken place in the last week,” said San Luis Valley Irrigation District Superintendent and RWEACT leader Travis Smith about the prevention measures that will be in place through spring 2014 and beyond.

Since BAER arrived last week, a forest inventory has been underway with help from RWEACT’s local resources including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Rio Grande, Mineral and Hinsdale Counties and others. BAER, comprised of national forest soil scientists, hydrologists, biologists and other experts, has taken the local preliminary reports and expanded on their findings. A final BAER report is expected at the end of this week, which, if accepted, will allow implementation to begin.

“We want to implement treatments before the first damaging storm,” said BAER leader Eric Schroder. “It is a lofty goal when you are in the middle of monsoon season.”

Flash floods are of greatest concern. Mineral County Undersheriff Bill Fairchild said the RWEACT emergency services subcommittee is working to finalize a three-step flash flood warning system to help people navigate through rapidly rising creeks. Last week, he said, Trout Creek rose 14 and one-half inches in 25 minutes, thankfully without carrying any debris.

The three-step warning incorporates a watch for storms when forecasted, an advisory should rains expect to total three-tenths to three-fourths of an inch with spotters in the field and a warning should water accumulation expect or begin to exceed advisory numbers, triggering reverse 911 calls and a messaging via social media.

“We don’t want to get people numb to these warnings,” Fairchild said. “We’ve lived through smaller cells and dirty water.”

Many culverts in the area, he said, most likely would not be able to handle the increased water flows that come on quickly.

Should area culverts become clogged like the one installed at Big Meadows, flash flooding could happen, impacting roads like Highway 160. Old logging or “jammer” roads around Workman’s Creek could suffer in the same fashion.

“I’m really concerned about that piece of road (Highway 160),” said BAER transportation specialist Gary Frink. “Some of these smaller tributaries will see greater consequences.”

The teams are considering renting a “Doppler On Wheels” weather station for 40 days at a cost of $70,000, which the recent $2.5 million state relief funding should cover, to make sure no one is caught in a surprise storm this summer and maybe into the fall.

“We have the option to continue,” Smith said in regards to monitoring autumn storms that behave differently than the monsoons. “We are all thinking about that. We are trying to be cost effective.”

A number of rain and stream gages are also being installed throughout the watershed.

Should the watershed take on a large amount of ash and debris, irrigation pumps could suffer some setbacks, but the water will not contaminate Valley crops. In fact, it offers phosphorous and potassium found in common fertilizers to the fields.

“They (producers) should be worried about their equipment,” said Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project coordinator and RWEACT member Heather Dutton.

Smith added, “Black water is not good, but we should educate ourselves on the thresholds... Black doesn’t mean that it is killing fish.”

The initial BAER reports confirm the soil burn intensity throughout the 109,615-acre area. The Papoose Fire left a 41 percent moderate to high and a 59 percent unburned to low burn scar over the 49,628 acres it burned. The West Fork Fire left a 64 percent high to moderate and a 36 percent unburned to low burn scar over the 58,570 acres it consumed. In drainages like Trout Creek and Crooked Creek, where moderate to high burns took place, erosion and debris problems are more likely and could result in future road closures.

BAER also reported on the watershed’s hydrology and how the burn intensity would affect tributary flows, but Smith and other RWEACT members contested the hydrology model’s findings since they did not take increased sediment loads into consideration. Smith said RWEACT would put the Valley’s local hydrologists to use to provide BAER with another opinion.

‘There are several things we feel should be looked at more closely,” Schroder said about the assessment process. “It is a work in progress. It is a dynamic document.”

Land treatments were also discussed during the meeting. BAER is considering using mulch made from shredded wood dropped from planes where it would be appropriate. The downside, however, would be the potential to introduce noxious weeds to the San Juan Mountains.

“Those are big decisions we don’t make at the BAER team level,” Schroder said. “We make recommendations.”

He said conversations about reseeding methods would continue, addressing topics of public concern like recreating the spruce forest that could not beat the lethal beetle, which generated a great fuel source for the WFCF.

The NRCS is also continuing to help private landowners assess their lands for mitigation work like building berms to prevent flooding and debris threats.

A Flood Insurance Workshop will be held at the South Fork Fire Department/Ambulance Building on Tuesday, July 30 at 6 p.m.

Throughout the rest of the week, the Small Business Association will be in South Fork to help locals access disaster assistance loans. Next week, the agency will be in Creede.

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