A different concern ignites

Mudslides follow most wildfires

A cold spotting crew from Fort Yuma Reservation in California digs through the ashes of the Weber Fire. Mudslides will be the next concern for Weber Canyon residents. Rehabilitation plans are in the works for burnt acreage. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

A cold spotting crew from Fort Yuma Reservation in California digs through the ashes of the Weber Fire. Mudslides will be the next concern for Weber Canyon residents. Rehabilitation plans are in the works for burnt acreage.

The flames may have subsided and the immediate threat to homes and property may have passed, but Weber and East canyon residents have yet to escape the totality of the consequences of the Weber Fire.

With more than 10,000 charred acres within the fire’s perimeter lines, soil stability is a growing concern for fire officials, public land managers and property owners, whose homes are near, or clinging to, the steep sides of the Mancos area canyons.

While residents of Montezuma and Dolores counties have searched the skies for signs of rain for months, enduring a severe drought worthy of disaster designation, the idea of rain is now troublesome for those living in the shadow of Menefee Mountain who worry that the slightest hint of moisture might send sheets of mud, ash and debris sliding down the canyon walls. Mudslides will come.

The rains that would provide relief and sustained livelihood for area farmers and ranchers could mean devastation for those who are searching for normalcy in the unstable ashes of the Weber Fire.

“The thing that we are most concerned about after a fire is the potential for flooding and landslides,” said Cindy Shank, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Red Cross, during a community meeting in Mancos Monday night.

Shank, a Durango resident who suffered through the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, said conversations regarding how to protect against landslides need to begin immediately, before the monsoonal rains come to Southwest Colorado.

“We were impacted after Missionary Ridge by landslides and several homes were damaged and several were destroyed,” she said. “Now is the time to talk about this. We didn’t talk about it after Missionary Ridge and we weren’t prepared. Now is the time to talk.”

Lee MacDonald, a professor of land-use hydrology in Colorado State University’s Watershed Science Program, said mudslides are common after wildfire because fire, and the ash that covers the ground, impacts the ability of soil to absorb water.

“The infiltration rate drops dramatically after a high severity fire,” MacDonald said in a phone interview Friday. “You are looking at an infiltration rate of less than half an inch an hour and it doesn’t take much of a rain storm to start generating overland flow.”

That overland flow can take the form of massive amounts of soil and ash flowing down hillsides at an alarming rate, threatening homes and property that escaped the flames of the fire but are now faced with the damage caused by the onslaught of water and earth.

The highest erosion rates exist in the first two years after fires, MacDonald said, when little regrowth has occurred and the soil is still barren and unstable.

The timing of the Weber Fire is particularly troubling, as it occurred just before the monsoon season in Southwest Colorado, where in normal years it is not unusual to see heavy rainstorms each afternoon. Those rains, desperately coveted by the dry region, may bring trouble to the burned area.

State and federal land managers are working on mitigation plans for the Weber Fire area, prioritizing stabilization efforts on the hillsides of the canyons.

“We want to make sure we are addressing any of the short and long-term impacts of runoff,” said Ivan Messinger, wildlife biologist with the Dolores Public Lands office and a resource advisor on the Weber Fire, during the community meeting in Mancos. “That is probably the primary thing right now. Where we have areas that are burned down to bare soil we are going to have some runoff and that can lead to emergency situations. We are working to mitigate those impacts.”

Mike Rich, district conservationist for the local U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, told Mancos residents there is a program to aid homeowners in mitigation efforts.

“We are here to offer technical assistance to private landowners,” Rich said. “We have a program called the Emergency Watershed Protection Program that will provide funding to private landowners to help in some of these situations where runoff could cause damage to homes or irrigation ditches.”

Rich did caution that due to the number of extreme fires in Colorado, there is no guarantee funding will be available for local homeowners, but the NRCS office will do everything it can to provide options for the Mancos area.

NRCS engineers are available for preliminary assessments of homes and property to determine what steps must be taken to protect against mudslides, Rich said. The service is free to homeowners.

Rebecca Samulski, Montezuma County coordinator for FireWise of Southwest Colorado, encouraged homeowners and communities to work together to fight against the possibilities of mudslides in the same way they came together in wildfire mitigation efforts.

“We saw how mitigation helped during this fire,” Samulski said. “Fire that was in that mitigated area burned through and the trees are still there. Now we are dealing with the aftermath and we need to make sure flooding and mudslides don’t damage the properties the fire crews worked so hard to save. Rather than working on recovery individually, let’s do the rehabilitation at the community landscape level so everyone can benefit and we can do it quickly.”

As the area waits for word of approval for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, Samulski said she is working to secure private funding to help with emergency needs.

“I think we can organize this community and make this something that is a model community scale project in a fire rehabilitation area,” Samulski said.

While officials and residents work for stabilization, MacDonald said awareness is key to protecting property and lives.

“Homeowners need to be aware of rainfall and runoff, especially if they live in an area where runoff occurs, such as the steep hillsides or near stream channels or an alluvial fan,” he said. “The likelihood of flooding and slide problems is very real.”

For more information on mitigation efforts, contact the NRCS at 565-9045 or Samulski at 564-4007.

Reach Kimberly Benedict at kimberlyb@cortezjournal.com

A whirlwind picks up ashes and twirls skywards on top of Weber Canyon. Unstable ashes could become a problem when rain falls. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

A whirlwind picks up ashes and twirls skywards on top of Weber Canyon. Unstable ashes could become a problem when rain falls.