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Preparations solid for debris flow planning
Agencies gird for years of mudslide potential
Debris flow
The acres of land scarred from the 2018 Lake Christine Fire are under constant observation and monitoring, thanks to a multi-agency effort. Based upon experience from other fires, it’s likely there will be a debris flow incident sometime in the near or distant future. - photo by Jordan Curet

If tradition holds true, the month of July is when heavy rains usually return to the Roaring Fork Valley, though as the first half of 2019 has demonstrated, this year’s weather patterns are anything but typical.

But an inter-agency effort that involves multiple jurisdictions is keeping a close eye on the weather and how it may affect local properties, especially those impacted by Lake Christine’s fire scarred lands above Basalt, El Jebel and upper Cattle Creek. The effort is aided by some recently established weather stations in Eagle County that tie in with the National Weather Service to provide data in real time.

“When the heavy rains come, which are traditionally in July, that’s when we’re concerned with mudslide and debris issues,” said Jenny Cutright, public information officer for the Carbondale and Rural Fire District.

According to Bill Gavette, Carbondale’s deputy chief, the potential for a flash flooding kind of event is heightened when about a quarter-inch of rain falls within 15 minutes. When that happens, information will be relayed to the public via Pitkin County’s alert system, which can send messages to cell and landline phones, emails, text and TTY messages to the hearing impaired. Sign up by going to pitkincounty.com/AlertCenter.aspx or text LCFLOOD to 888777.

Carbondale Fire has also been proactive on social media and earlier this week its Twitter account, @Carbondalefire, offered helpful hints about what to do if a flooding event occurs: “Go uphill or upstairs, get on a roof or climb a tree,” it was noted.

Those posts prompted several local homeowners to ask for specific details about potential flooding. Yet because there’s no certainty about when, where or even if the rain storms will be concentrated, it’s impossible to predict what the event will be and where evacuation should take place, the agency members say.

With that in mind, it’s important to be prepared to leave quickly if need be. A 72-hour go bag, which includes essential medicines, is highly recommended. So too is the gathering of irreplaceables like family heirlooms and photographs.

“Anybody in those areas should have a plan,” Gavette said on Wednesday. That should include notifying friends and neighbors about one’s whereabouts (i.e. whether or not one is leaving behind an empty house when heading to summer vacation).

“Nobody really knows what the scenario will be,” he said.

A highway breach?

A frequently shared concern among residents living in the shadow of the Lake Christine fire scars is whether or not a mud flow could ever cross Highway 82.

Cutright allowed that, “there’s a slight chance it could cross the highway” but that “we don’t know where the heavy rain’s going to hit.”

Models employing data from other big fires, including those in Montecito, Calif., as well as Waldo Canyon, can be helpful. But if 2019 has proven anything, anomalies are as common this year as sure things.

“It’s been a weird June and we don’t know if it’s going to be a typical July,” Gavette said. “Last year they predicted a long, early monsoon which never showed up.”

Scott Thompson, chief of the Roaring Fork Fire District, said his biggest concern right now is the Cattle Creek vicinity as well as the Tree Farm area and some ravines and areas that come into old town Basalt such as Cedar and Pinion drives.

Pitkin County’s emergency management information officer, Valerie McDonald, stressed on Wednesday that people need to realize debris flows are of long-term concern and won’t just abate after a single summer.

“We’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to be talking about this for the next five years,” McDonald said. “If we don’t have a debris flow from someplace, we will be the first place ever to experience a major fire to not have a debris flow.”

Chief Thompson noted, “This is going to go on for five or six years.”