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Flooding on U.S. 160 over La Veta Pass after the Spring Creek Fire. (Provided by the Costilla County Sheriff's Office)

Southern Colorado residents who watched the Spring Creek Fire sweep across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains last summer now look worriedly at the more than 108,000 acres of charred land.

This year, they vigilantly watch for rain clouds.

Even a quarter inch of rain pouring onto those devastated slopes could bring a new disaster to hundreds of homes and businesses in the Cucharas River valley, including the towns of La Veta and Walsenburg.

The 1,000 residents of La Veta could have as little as 30 minutes warning of a flash flood, and in a worst-case scenario the town could lose 70 percent of its structures.

“We believe we’re going to lose homes,” La Veta Mayor Douglas Brgoch said. “We believe we’re going to lose access and so forth. We don’t want to lose any people.”

Walsenburg’s 3,000 residents would have more warning time, but the potential for devastation also is severe — as many as 600 homes could be flooded along with City Hall and the county’s emergency operations center (a backup location has been secured).

The La Veta town hall also is in “the crosshairs of where flooding would be.” Officials would move to the water treatment facility that is on high ground, Brgoch said.

Town and Huerfano County websites are chock full of flood preparation information. Sirens and stream gauges have been installed, channels cleared and sandbags filled.

In La Veta, residents who live uphill from flood danger have signed up to be “flood buddies,” offering their homes as refuge to friends and neighbors whose homes are most endangered.

La Veta Trails reports 160 volunteers have worked more than 2,000 hours to clean up the banks of the Cucharas River where it runs through La Veta, hoping to reduce the risk of post-fire flooding. Here Jyette Hake-Helps, left, and Ernest Shealy rake small debris into a carrier while Cindy Campbell rakes in the background. (Photo provided by La Veta Trails)

Army of volunteers help keep resources focused

About 160 people have put in more than 2,000 volunteer hours with the La Veta Trails organization to clear debris and brush from the banks of the Cucharas River where it runs through town.

“The response has been phenomenal,” said Marilyn Russell, president and volunteer executive director of La Veta Trails. “It allows the town to focus its limited resources on other things and not have to pay people other than those with chain saws.”

Volunteers with Walsenburg’s newly hatched Green Leaf Committee have been doing the same thing along the river banks in that town.

Numerous government and nonprofit agencies are pitching in, coordinating through a post-fire flood task force. Huerfano County Emergency Manager Larry Sanders tried to tick off a list of those who’ve contributed money or services or both: Natural Resources Conservation Service, AmeriCorps, U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, National Weather Service, Colorado Department of Transportation, water districts, local nonprofits. His voice trails off.

“I know I’m forgetting some,” he said. “This list just goes on and on.”

Given the potential for a life-threatening flood — not just this year, but for several — Sanders said everyone keeps pushing to complete as much preparation as possible before monsoon season, typically mid-July to September. But they’ve also warned residents that any spring storm with heavy rain could lead to flooding.

The region got a taste of the potential after the fire last summer, with 13 flood warnings and a “few” events that caused some damage. They lost some cattle, barns and other out buildings and a couple of county roads washed out, he said.

But he anticipates much worse flooding from the burn scar.

“It’s not if and not even really when, but how many times,” he said.

A scene from the Spring Creek Fire in southern Colorado during the summer of 2018. (Handout)

Burn scars statewide are prone to flooding for years

The residents of Huerfano County are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado have burned in wildland fires this century, often leaving burn scars prone to flooding for years.

A mud and rock slide from the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire near Durango recently closed a county road. Flash flood warning signs dot some canyon roads through the 2002 Hayman Fire burn area, where charred tree trunks stand starkly on the landscape. Closure gates and flash flood warning signs on U.S. 24 through Ute Pass are a reminder of the deadly flash floods that followed the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.

Depending on the intensity and size of the fire, the steepness of the slopes and its proximity to watersheds and population areas, the results can be catastrophic.

Weston Toll, a watershed program specialist with the Colorado State Forest Service, said burn scar runoff can be devastating to reservoirs, agricultural land and rivers downstream as well as to homes and other structures. Special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessments are completed to help predict post-fire flooding risks.

The intensity of a fire is key because it is so hot that the soil is sterilized, regrowth — and therefore erosion control — takes much longer. Nearly a quarter of the Spring Creek Fire acreage burned at high intensity, according to the BAER report.

A scene from the summer 2018 Spring Creek Fire. (Handout)

Three massive fires put more homes, businesses in runoff path

Wildfires burned 475,803 acres in Colorado in 2018, making it the second-largest fire year after 2002, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. That added a lot of post-fire flood potential.

416 Fire

  • Date: June 1-July 31, 2018
  • Location: About 10 miles north of Durango, in LaPlata County; primarily on San Juan National Forest land
  • Size: 54,129 acres
  • Structures lost: none
  • Cause: remains under investigation
  • Community impacts: Hundreds of evacuations; highway, business and forest closures; unhealthy air quality because of smoke; tourism impacted; post-fire flood damages to homes and watershed.

Lake Christine Fire

  • Date: July 3-Sept. 17, 2018
  • Location: Northwest of Basalt in Eagle County; mostly on White River National Forest land, but also on state and private lands
  • Size: 12,588 acres
  • Structures lost: 3 homes
  • Cause: human; tracer rounds used by target shooters
  • Community impacts: hundreds of evacuations; unhealthy air quality because of smoke; forest closures; post-fire flooding

Spring Fire

  • Date: June 27-Sept. 10, 2018
  • Location: Northeast of Fort Garland in Costilla and Huerfano counties; mostly on private and state lands but also on BLM and San Isabel National Forest lands.
  • Size: 108,045 acres
  • Structures lost: 141 homes
  • Cause: human; grilling fire
  • Community impacts: hundreds of evacuations; unhealthy air quality because of smoke; highway closures; post-fire flooding

Three of the worst — the Spring Creek Fire, the 416 Fire near Durango and the Lake Christine Fire in Eagle County — have added hundreds of homes and businesses to the list of those endangered by burn-scar runoff.

As soon as large fires are contained or extinguished, the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management begins to coordinate recovery efforts, said Micki Trost, the agency’s strategic communications director. The agency’s nine regional offices work with local and state jurisdictions to develop emergency and recovery plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has campaigned in all affected communities to encourage residents to buy flood insurance, said Diana Herrera, a senior regional flood insurance liaison.

The agency doesn’t track why people buy flood insurance, but she said she’s watched the numbers steadily decrease in Colorado even as the number of fires continue to increase.

Anecdotally, she said some people buy post-fire flood insurance and if nothing happens in a year or two, they cancel it. But that’s dangerous, she said, because the danger often lingers for years.

As of the end of February, there were 20,758 flood coverage policies in Colorado. In February 2016, there were 23,518.

Sometimes, she said, people cancel policies because flood maps change or their house is paid for and they’re no longer required to keep the insurance.

FEMA doesn’t add post-fire flood risk areas to its maps because those aren’t traditional flood plains. But local governments usually provide that information. Walsenburg even has some animated flood maps that show how the town could be inundated in a 10-year event.

Tough to tally the cost of flood mitigation, recovery

Just as with the cost of firefighting, it’s next to impossible to figure out how much is spent in Colorado on post-fire flood mitigation and recovery. With dozens of agencies, volunteers, the time of local and state officials and maintenance workers, paid contractors and in-kind services, the figures likely are staggering.

The big player in the Spring Creek Fire is Natural Resource Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Emergency Watershed Protection program is the primary one that deals with disasters on private land, and some 85,000 acres impacted by the Spring Creek Fire is privately owned, making it the largest private land wildfire in the state.

So far, NRCS has awarded $14 million EWP dollars to the four sponsors — Huerfano and Costilla counties, La Veta and Walsenburg, said Tony Arnhold, the district conservationist in the Walsenburg field office. (Which, incidentally, sits high on a hill and out of the potential flood area.) The local governments must make a 25 percent match, which can come from grants or state or local coffers.

NRCS also provides direct services with its staff of experts, including biologists, soil conservationists, engineers and surveyors, Arnhold said.

Arnhold’s crew spent about 90 days last fall surveying the fire site, and then put together a plan for needed work. The funded work includes such things as placing flood barrier bags that are braced with soil, protecting wellheads, protecting drinking water sources, hill slope treatments to slow water flow and placing sandbags around homes.

“This is quite a service for the communities,” he said, noting that FEMA grants were not available for the Spring Creek Fire because the needs did not meet the minimum threshold.

“We’re the only game in town,” he said. “We are doing our best to try to save homes and property, and to save lives.”

The NRCS also is working on the 416 and Lake Christine fires, he said.

Bernie Fay and Charlie Hackbarth are volunteer sawyers who work almost every day, tackling the biggest jobs clearing fallen trees and other debris from the Cucharas River in La Veta. (Photo provided by La Veta Trails)

Sanders said several million dollars worth of work was performed by AmeriCorps, Mile High Youth Corps and Team Rubicon, not to mention that done by local volunteers.

Water districts helped install gauges along the streams, and the National Weather Service has trained spotters who live up near the canyons.

The southeast CDOT region has asked for money to install closure gates on several highways in the region, and expects to hear about its request by the end of the month, said Michelle Peulen, regional spokeswoman. The gates would be installed on U.S. 160, Colorado 10, 12 and 69 and Interstate 25-C, a short business loop through Walsenburg.

Turnout is good, but public buy-in vital

Officials say they’ve had good turnout at public meetings — more than 500 people attended an Army Corps of Engineers-sponsored sandbag training and filling event in Walsenburg on April 6.

Brgoch said a flood two years ago that impacted a handful of homes is fresh on people’s minds, and they realize the danger now has been amplified. He believes that many have purchased flood insurance, and some have taken other precautions, such as moving important papers and sentimental items such as photos out of harm’s way.

But he and Sanders say they know that in reality, some people won’t be prepared or their plan will be too vague to carry out.

“Americans have this illusion that we’re always safe, especially when you’re in your home,” Sanders said. “We deny or delay. We’re encouraging people to have a plan for staying alive — just do it. And if the sirens go off, go to high ground. If it’s just practice, great.”

They’ve also thought of visitors to the area, and flyers about potential flood dangers and what to do are available at many public places, such as the visitor center at nearby Lathrop State Park.

Trost said the two most important things individuals can do is get on the emergency notification list for their county and buy flood insurance. Those things will help ensure survival and a faster recovery if their property is damaged in a flood.

Huerfano County had contracted with CodeRed to provide emergency notifications, and the newly installed sirens in La Veta and Walsenburg have been tested. Local officials can monitor the stream gauges and will be in close contact with the National Weather Service office in Pueblo when rain is in the forecast, and local officials have urged residents to purchase a S.A.M.E. Weather Radio to get area-specific alerts.

Local officials will decide when to activate the warning sirens.

In La Veta, for example, the siren will sound for three minutes, and then go silent for seven minutes. The cycle will repeat.

“If they haven’t evacuated before the third siren they’d better seek shelter on top of their house because they’re out of time,” Brgoch said.

This story was updated at 6:56 p.m. on April 24, 2019, to correct the communities in the Cucharas River valley that are at risk of post-fire flooding. The village of Cuchara is not at risk, although access could be limited if Colorado 12 is affected by floods.

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.