Eagle County officials warn Basalt, El Jebel residents about possibility of floods, mudslides
Residents around the Lake Christine Fire area need to be prepared to deal with another potential natural disaster once the summer monsoons hit, officials have stressed this week.
Eagle County and the federal incident management team said flash flood and mudslides are a distinct possibility in coming weeks.
Eagle County Emergency Manager Barry Smith said it’s a question of “when” the Basalt and El Jebel area will receive heavy rainfall rather than “if.” Heavy rains are forecast as a possibility in western Colorado this afternoon and evening, though not necessarily for Basalt specifically, he noted.
The concern is that the midvalley will be more susceptible to flash flooding because so many slopes are devoid of vegetation after the Lake Christine Fire swept through. As of Saturday evening, the fire had burned 9,672 acres after an active day; Saturday morning, officials said it was at 8,800 acres.
“We don’t have a way to stop that flooding from happening, so we want to prepare people that it’s going to happen,” Smith said. “The best thing we can do is get people out of the way so nobody gets injured or killed in a flood.”
Generally there is very little notice for flash floods, so residents need to make sure they are signed up for Pitkin and Eagle County alerts, Smith said. The National Weather Service is paying attention to burn areas in Colorado and will send alerts when heavy rains are possible.
When it does rain, stay alert and be prepared for the possibility of being stranded for a while if neighborhood roads get covered in mud and debris. The gullies that typically flow during heavy rains will now do so more intensely — with more water and the addition of ash and dirt.
“All we can do is come in and clean up as quickly as possible,” Smith said. “We do have equipment pre-staged.”
Eagle County is working on maps to show the areas that might be most susceptible to flash floods, officials said at a community meeting Friday evening in Basalt.
In addition, the Forest Service has a Burnt Area Emergency Response team prepared to come into the area to assess what work could be done in the short term to protect against flooding and revegetation over the long run.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the BAER team was ordered, but he “turned them around” because the firefighting effort is still so active.
Eagle County is urging property owners to make sure they have flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers a preferred risk policy.
“All Eagle County and Basalt residents are eligible to purchase flood insurance due to the fact that both jurisdictions participate in the National Flood Insurance Program,” said information provided by Eagle County government at the meeting.
The flood risk can last seven years after a wildfire even in areas that aren’t deemed high risk, according to the county information. Homeowners’ insurance policies usually do not cover flooding. Renters can get insurance covering contents.
The county said insurance can be issued through any insurance agent who can write property and casualty insurance in Colorado. Acting sooner rather than later is best because there is a 30-day wait on all new policies — with an exception if flooding is caused by post-wildfire conditions coming from federal lands, according to Eagle County.
The Lake Christine Fire has burned on state, private and federal lands. It’s now burning in the heavy timber of national forest. Crews spent much of Saturday working on the most active area, which is on the fire’s north side, above the Missouri Heights area.
One woman at the community meeting said she had checked on flood insurance and found acquiring it was “complicated.” County commissioner Jeanne McQueeney urged property owners to consultant with their insurers as soon as possible.
If there is flooding, the watershed and the part of the economy dependent on fishing in the gold medal waters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers also are at risk. The fire has burned far enough in an easterly direction on the ridge above Fryingpan Valley that it could result in silt-clogged runoff reaching the Fryingpan River.
“It going to go to all sides of the mountain and all those gullies in the burn area will have debris, mud, a lot of extra water and ash flowing down there,” Smith said. “It’s going to go all directions.”
An audience member at Friday’s meeting asked if enough debris could run off Basalt Mountain to dam up the Roaring Fork or Fryingpan rivers.
“I don’t know. It’s happened before” in other burn areas, said Shane Greer, incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team Black.
He noted his team was fighting the Spring Creek Fire east of San Luis Valley earlier this month. One day of rain produced a significant amount of debris in mudslides, he said.
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Studies by Colorado Parks and Wildlife show the survival of elk calves in the Roaring Fork Valley has dropped about 33 percent in the last decade. White River National Forest officials said they need to act to try to reserve that trend. They are seeking public comment on their plan.