Lake Christine Fire’s threat to Basalt, El Jebel isn’t gone yet
When the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning in the Lake Christine burn scar areas, Pitkin Alert will send out notifications to users who have registered for the weather alerts at http://www.pitkinalert.org. Those who only want to receive information about the threat of flash floods, mudslides and debris flows from the Lake Christine burn scar, can text LCFLOOD to 888777.
Nearly one year after the Lake Christine Fire, it’s posing a different risk to the midvalley.
Emergency responders from Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties told a crowd of about 50 people Monday night that flooding and mud flows from the burn scar will pose a threat for years to come.
The public “dodged a bullet” during the fire without lose of life, said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, and now he hopes there isn’t a catastrophic event in the aftermath.
“I hate to stand up here and be the downer, but that’s the truth of it,” Thompson said.
Driving the point home was a map displayed at the front of the meeting room in the Eagle County office building in El Jebel showing what areas of the burn scar have been assessed with the greatest risk of launching floods and debris flows if there is an intense downpour. The U.S. Geological Survey made the map based on field evidence compiled by a federal Burned Area Emergency Response team. The team mapped where the fire burned most intense last summer and scalded the soils. That affects their ability to absorb moisture.
Thompson said he has toured Basalt Mountain this spring and witnessed firsthand that runoff is pouring off certain areas in sheets because the soil is hydrophobic.
“It’s doing exactly what the BAER (team) told us it’s going to do, which is not absorbing moisture,” he said.
The map showed the highest risk areas of flood and mudflow are in the hillsides above El Jebel and above parts of Basalt, stretching up the Fryingpan Valley.
Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service identified specific households that could be threatened by water or mud emerging from the burn scar. Those households have been contacted, he said, attempting to allay fears that everyone needs to be concerned.
The town government, Eagle County and Colorado Parks and Wildlife received a $1.3 million grant for flood and flow mitigation projects for both public and private properties. They are gearing up those projects now — building catch basins, check dams and placing trash traps over culverts.
Thompson said one of the biggest threats could result from flood and flows on the north end of the burn scar, in the uninhabited areas on the backside of Basalt Mountain. The steep hillside drains into Cattle Creek. One fear is so much water and debris will drain into the creek that it could affect homes several miles downstream and even wash out Highway 82 where the creek hits the Roaring Fork Valley floor between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
Carbondale Fire Chief Rob Goodwin said he is working with landowners higher up on Cattle Creek to establish a notification system in case of high water. Teams of firefighters are also checking the creek on a daily basis.
Eagle County Emergency Manager Birch Barron said runoff from a burn scar creates a scenario significantly different from a regular flood. Trees, rock and mud rolling into the waterways create dams that eventually break and send an ever-increasing amount of water and material downstream.
“All the things we’re doing will not stop the water and debris from coming down,” Barron said.
Erin May, regional manager of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged homeowners to get flood insurance for their property. They can start with base coverage through the National Flood Program and add on through private insurers, she said. She warned that it typically takes 30 days for a policy to take effect, so plan ahead.
May stressed that FEMA data shows a significant number of claims come from areas assessed as low risk for flooding. Burn scars pose enhanced risk for years, she said.
A handful of audience members asked about risks to specific neighborhoods. Apologetic emergency responders said it’s impossible to know who is at risk because there are so many unknowns.
“Anxiety — we all have anxiety,” Thompson said. “We don’t know what Mother Nature is going to throw at us.”
Not everything can be planned for, he added. So the best bet is for people to sign up for Pitkin Alerts, where they can be warned of heavy rain forecasts, possible flooding and other natural disasters and plan accordingly.
Officials in Garfield and Eagle counties have agreed that Pitkin County will be the lead agency to issue alerts — regardless of which county a household is located in.
When the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning in the Lake Christine burn scar areas, Pitkin Alert will send out notifications to users who have registered for the weather alerts at http://www.pitkinalert.org. Those who only want to receive information about the threat of flash floods, mudslides and debris flows from the Lake Christine burn scar can text LCFLOOD to 888777.
A map of the Lake Christine burn scar and threat areas can be found at http://www.carbondalefire.org/2019/05/07/lcf_map.
Some audience members expressed confusion over whether they should stay put or flee if an alert is issued. The answer, the panel of emergency responders said, depends on circumstances at individual properties.
Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald stressed that people should have a “go kit” with everything from clothes, medication and toiletries to last 72 hours as well as valuable papers and important personal items.
Thompson expressed frustration that the well-publicized meeting only drew 50 or so people. It was important enough that it should have attracted a standing-room-only crowd, he said. Thompson urged people to tell two or three others about signing up for Pitkin Alerts.
“It’s a real threat,” he said. “I can’t tell you enough.”
Audience member Jocelyn Terry asked the panel if the couple that were responsible for the fire, Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, could face additional criminal charges if there is a loss of life resulting from flooding and debris flow from the burn scar.
The people who can answer that, Basalt manager Mahoney replied, weren’t part of the night’s program. He presumably meant the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Terry is a critic of the plea agreement negotiated by the DA with Miller and Marcus. They both pleaded guilty to setting fire to woods or prairie, a misdemeanor. In return, the DA’s Office agreed to drop three charges of felony arson against each of them.
The plea deal includes a sentence of 45 days in Eagle County Jail, 1,500 hours of community service and $100,000 each in restitution. A judge is scheduled to formally issue the sentence July 1.
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A 40-year-old resident of El Jebel died from COVID-19 on Saturday. He is survived by his wife and two young children.