Plans underway to restore landscape, ease mudslides from Lake Christine Fire |

Plans underway to restore landscape, ease mudslides from Lake Christine Fire

This picture taken the morning of July 4 near the Holy Cross Energy substation shows how gullies are susceptible to runoff from rainstorms until restoration is underway.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Even before the flames of the Lake Christine Fire are fully extinguished, officials with Basalt and Eagle County are pondering what could be next.

The obvious answer is the possibility of heavy rains sending dirt and ash down gullies and into rivers and streams once the monsoons hit.

“You hope it rains but then it’s, ‘Oh, my god, what’s that rain going to take into the river?’” said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The answer is a black sludge that would threaten fish and insects and fill in the tiny spaces between sediments where invertebrates live.

In a summer when rivers and streams are already facing major challenges from low flows and high temperatures, the addition of mudslides could spell environmental catastrophe.

“We’re going to witness an ecosystem change.” — Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Supervisor

The Eagle County government has already started running models to determine where the biggest problems could be if the burn area receives a substantial amount of rain, according to County Manager Jeff Shroll. That information will be shared with the public works departments in Eagle County and Basalt, so they can be prepared for problems in specific areas, he said. Check dams, which allow water to filter through in a controlled manner but catch sediment, will be used in some areas.

“That’s sort of the behind-the-scenes while they’re putting out the fire,” Shroll said.

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said Basalt crews have cleaned out culverts and waterways to try to keep rainfall runoff flowing, but there are only so many precautions that can be taken. One advantage is much of the burn area is volcanic soils that don’t tend to slide as much.

“We likely won’t have catastrophic mud slides,” Mahoney said. “If we get a 100-year event it doesn’t matter what we do.”

The fire had covered 6,100 acres, or 9.25 square miles, as of Monday morning. Numerous gullies and streams are spilling into the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan watersheds, so preventing ash-filled runoff will be a challenge.

The best way to avoid runoff is to restore the burn area. That’s something already on the radar of White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. He said he has received numerous emails and personal inquiries on how people can help with restoration.

He is working with Lofaro, the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a partnership to raise funds for restoration. The federal government has funds available through a Burnt Area Emergency Rehabilitation program. State funds also are available. Private sector funds will be collected through the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Fitzwilliams said people are going to have to get used to a harsh reality — the burned landscape won’t look the same for generations.

“We’re going to witness an ecosystem change,” Fitzwilliams said.

Pinon and juniper forests grow extremely slowly, so the burn area will be brush and grassland, he said. Some areas were burned down to the mineral soil, so getting anything to grow for a while will be a challenge. Weeds will establish first, so there will have to be an effort to control them, he said.

Several members of the White River staff are certified to enter wildfire areas, so they will be making an assessment of the burn area and working on a restoration plan.

“I expect them to get into the area within the next week at the least,” Fitzwilliams said.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy plans to stress the need for contributions for restoration in a campaign launched at its annual River Rendezvous on Wednesday.

“Obviously the restoration is going to take place for years,” Lofaro said.

While partners are collaborating to help the natural environment, a public-private sector group convened by Geoff Hasley, general manager and chief operating officer of the Roaring Fork Club, is looking into improving Basalt’s economic environment.

The group wants to determine if a special marketing campaign needs to be launched to spread the word that Basalt is open for business.

“Our biggest enemy right now is not the fire but the perception,” said Kris Mattera, president of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce.

The group also is brainstorming ways to honor the firefighters and other first responders, both the regional and federal groups. Signs are being posted every day at Crown Mountain Park, the center of the firefighters’ temporary village and staging area, to thank them.

Basalt Councilman Auden Schendler, who was evacuated from his house on Sopris Drive during the fire, said Basalt as a community should contribute heavily in some way to thank the firefighters. The value of the property saved was immense, he noted.

“Of that vast amount of money, what do we owe?” he asked. “The town should do something substantial.”

Mahoney said the most meaningful investment Basalt government and residents could make is clearing defensive space on properties — clearing brush and taking other precautions to minimize the threat of wildfire.

“The town didn’t burn, but it could,” Schendler said.

Mahoney called following up on creating defensible space the “ultimate act of appreciation” for the firefighters who saved Basalt and El Jebel this time.