Officials fear flooding from Lake Christine burn area |

Officials fear flooding from Lake Christine burn area

In this October file photo, Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest explains the purpose of controlled burns and how they help prevent the spread of fires such as the Lake Christine Fire that broke out in July.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The Lake Christine Fire in July threatened numerous homes and properties in Eagle and Pitkin counties, but Garfield County leaders are concerned the lower Roaring Fork Valley also is in danger of flooding.

The Forest Service reported on the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) efforts to the Garfield Board of County Commissioners on Monday. While the BAER team did not model flood risk beyond the burn area, the conditions are there for disastrous floods that could affect homes in lower Cattle Creek.

“For Garfield County, it’s kind of out of sight,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said at the meeting. Residents of Garfield County have a tendency to say, “Oh, all that happened in Eagle County,” he said.

A big part of the BAER analysis was analyzing the burn areas to determine how hot the fire burned. The Lake Christine Fire burned in a patchwork pattern typical of forest fires, but in several areas, some with steep watersheds, the fire burned quite hot, damaging organic matter and the soil, preventing water from being absorbed into the ground and causing mud slides.

One area of high-density hotspots was the northern part of the fire, part of the area that drains into Cattle Creek.

“The short answer is yes, there is risk for sure,” Steve Hunter, civil engineer and hydrologist for the White River National Forest, said at the commissioners meeting.

Because fire suppression succeeded in blocking the fire from burning west along Cattle Creek, the BAER team did not analyze that area. Still, if there is a heavy snow season, the risk of debris and high water is real, Hunter said.

Cattle Creek is somewhat unique in that most of the water is diverted into a reservoir. But in the event of muddy, ashy and debris-filled flood waters, reservoir managers would likely close the gate to prevent polluting the stored water.

As the snows begin to melt, the BAER team will watch the runoff levels.

“We have dollars to monitor that,” Hunter said. The next step is to work with the National Resources Conservation Service and the Roaring Fork Conservancy, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to put in weather stations and develop an early warning system for local communities.

Some areas south of the burn area already have experienced mud and floods during the late summer rains. The BAER report released in late July issued a warning about the potential for floods: “Areas that previously did not have streamflow or debris flows may now flood or have debris flows.”

There aren’t many options for preventing floods, the report said, so BAER will focus on closures, warning signs, studies and the notification system to alert the public when damaging storms may be approaching. Besides the flood mitigation, the BAER team is monitoring for noxious weed growth and plans to treat around 40 percent of more than 500 acres with herbicide, stabilize trails and clean up the slash piles from the fire suppression.

The commissioners will continue discussions with NCRS and others to prepare for the spring runoff.

“We need to have some idea what to expect, and do any mitigation that we need to do now,” John Martin, chairman of the board of commissioners, said.

The commissioners hope to join a group of local governments from Eagle and Pitkin counties, the NRCS, the conservancy, the Forest Service and neighborhood leaders in March to be a part of the planning process for potential floods.

“The work starts after the fire is out,” Martin said.

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