Biggest risks to Ute Park after the fire? Flooding, refrigerator-sized boulders

By Ellen Miller-Goins
Sangre de Cristo Chronicle
Posted 8/8/18

By Ellen Miller-GoinsSangre de Cristo ChronicleThe Ute Park Fire torched 36,740 acres leaving a barren landscape with no vegetation to absorb or impede the flow of water. The result? Increased risk …

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Biggest risks to Ute Park after the fire? Flooding, refrigerator-sized boulders

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The Ute Park Fire torched 36,740 acres leaving a barren landscape with no vegetation to absorb or impede the flow of water. The result? Increased risk of flash flooding, mudflows and -- in the words of one official -- refrigerator-sized boulders.

Thomas Vigil, emergency manager for Colfax County, met with Ute Park homeowners Sunday (July 22) at the Ute Park Fire Station, along with officials from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, New Mexico office, to discuss the risks, and the steps needed to mitigate the risks.

"I've seen a few fires in my day, but I'd never seen a crowning fire before," Vigil told the group. "We've never had a fire like this before. It looks like the moon.… Six inches of fine gray powder, that's all that's left.… We're talking about 30,000 acres that's essentially nuked out."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency "Flood After Fire Fact Sheet" notes, "Wildfires leave the ground… unable to absorb water, creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored--up to 5 years after a wildfire. As rainwater moves across charred and denuded ground, it can also pick up soil and sediment and carry it in a stream of floodwaters. These mudflows can cause significant damage."

Protecting the watershed… and property

Kenneth Branch, NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection, program coordinator for New Mexico, noted his agency offers an emergency watershed protection program. "The main purpose of the program is to protect immediate threats to property and people.… We've seen a lot of sediment coming down… rocks… a lot of rocks.… We are going to try to request funding for is to take some of that sediment away."

Two things limit NCRS involvement, Branch said: Any grant funding would require a 25-percent match, either as funding or in-kind contributions. Secondly, "If the fix cause problems for the next property owner, that is something we will not do. We basically walk away from it."

Branch further cautioned, "Our program isn't a catch-all. Drainage, wells, other issues, that's outside of our realm."

Jeremy Garcia, area civil engineer with NCRS, explained the hydrology in the 700-plus acres of the watershed above Ute Park. "There's a whole lot of rocks up there. That's the imminent danger."

According to Garcia, a two-year storm with rainfall of 2.2 inches would theoretically cause 836 cubic feet per second to run downstream. (One CFS is equal to a volume of water one foot high and one foot wide flowing a distance of one foot in one second, which is equal to 7.48 gallons of water flowing each second.)

"That's a lot of water," Branch said. "That basically will be what pushes all the debris forward. That's why we're most worried about moving the debris out."

According to Branch, "One-half-inch of rain from the last storm caused around 400 cubic feet per second. It's still a lot of water. You guys saw it."

Asked whether it would be better to leave the debris in place to slow the water, Branch replied, "We can't clear all that debris and we wouldn't want to. We want to clear all the loose stuff. There's just a lot of debris and rocks. 4-foot and larger rocks, a 2-year storm will move all those rocks. Water is very powerful. You just want to respect Mother Nature."

Another homeowner asked whether a blockade would help. "You'd have to build a monstrosity of a structure,"Branch answered.

Strategic debris removal -- and placement -- would make the scene safer, NCRS officials said, as would ditches, jersey barriers and sandbags that are available from the Ute Park Fire Department. Colfax County will facilitate matching any funds, Vigil said, noting such funds (or in-kind contributions) would have to come from the Ute Park community.

"The county is willing to step in as a sponsor," Vigil said. "We're going to ask the landowners to step in. This is not a rich county.… I care about you folks but I also care about everything downstream. We have to have this fine balancing act to do the best we can for everyone. Everything's loosening up there. After the last rain, I saw four rocks roughly the size of refrigerators.

"I have no idea what a 1-inch storm is going to go. i have no idea what 2-inches is going to do. Even simple math, a 1-inch storm, a 2-inch storm, it's not only going to start bringing debris, it's going to start bringing trees as well. By the end of this monsoon, we're going to have a good model of what this burn scar does."

How soon is now?

One property owner asked, "Getting all those materials hauled off is a big process. Any idea when that could occur and how long that will take?"

Branch noted funding could come through by as soon as this week, "It will just be a matter of getting a contractor on site. The timeline depends on their equipment and where they have to dispose of all that rock."

How quickly a contractor gets the work done will depend on whether the cost falls below the state's $60,000 limit for spending without bidding. "Anything over $60,000 is going to have to go out for bid," Vigil said. "We're mandated by the state. Even if the county is the pass-through agency for grant fund, if the amount meets the $60,000 limit, they'd have to go out for bid."

Looking to the future

Resident Jim Rockenfield noted the community was fortunate that the fire, which began in Ute Park May 31, could easily have destroyed every home there. "We still are overgrown. Not enough people have gotten involved with any kind of concept of defensible space. The property owners need to step up. I realize it's a financial burden but it's part of living in an urban interface."

Asked if the fire's cause was still under investigation, Vigil replied, "I make a request once a week and I have heard nothing back."

Future closures for U.S. 64

"Storms are coming through and we've been dodging them," Vigil said "For whatever reason, [the rain is] not coming down the way it could be coming down. When it does come down, the best we can do at this point is we close that highway. I understand the economic impact but I don't think I can sleep at night thinking someone could die in that river."

That decision is a cooperative effort among New Mexico State Police, the State Department of Transportation, and Colfax County, Vigil said. "When we all three come into agreement on closing that road, we're going to close that road. I've seen 25-foot-high water marks in the canyon and that's with a half-inch storm. This is the new reality of living in Colfax County.

"Its a terrible, terrible sacrifice."

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