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Sunday’s flooding and debris flows highlight ongoing risk to Basalt
Incident response went ‘very well’ but alerts could have come sooner
Courtesy of Carbondale Fire and Rescue Flooding at Cedar Drive on Sunday.

For nearly a year following last summer’s Lake Christine Fire, Basalt residents have been warned to beware of flooding and debris flows in the burn scar, an area of more than 12,500 acres on the slopes of Basalt Mountain. With the ground made less stable due to the burning of the piñon trees and underbrush anchoring the soil in place, flash floods and mudslides were considered to be more or less inevitable – a case of when, rather than if.

On Aug. 4, those dire predictions came true as an isolated but intense thunderstorm dumped an inch and a half of rain on the southern part of the burn area in just a few hours, triggering debris flows that raced down the mountain to the Fryingpan River, closing roads and trapping a number of people in their vehicles.

The biggest weather-related incident in Basalt since the fire, the storm and flooding also set off alerts warning residents to watch out for flash floods and imploring those in the impacted area to “shelter in place or seek higher ground.” The rain began at around 5 p.m. Sunday, and the first alerts went out around 5:30 p.m. – about the same time 911 calls started coming in to area dispatchers.

Thankfully, there were no injuries reported due to the flooding, and the damage to structures was considerably less than local officials feared it might be, but the incident still proved a harrowing and potentially dangerous situation for a town that will have to live with the threat of similar troubles for years to come.

“I’ve heard anywhere from five to 10 years,” said Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott, part of the multi-agency response team called out to deal with the flooding on Sunday. “But we recently saw an incident that closed I-70 (on July 26 near Glenwood Springs). That was off the Storm King burn scar from a fire 25 years ago, so, really, we don’t have a solid number that says, ‘OK, when this date happens, we’re in the clear.’ We just have to continue to be ready for incidents or events of big rainfall.”

As part of the preparation for potential flooding in the year since the Lake Christine Fire, Knott and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority Chief Scott Thompson helped put together an incident response team made up of agencies from throughout the valley. On Sunday, those responding to or otherwise helping out with the emergency came from all of the following:

  • Basalt Police Department
  • Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority
  • Eagle County emergency manager
  • Eagle County Sheriff’s Office
  • Pitkin County emergency manager
  • Pitkin County deputies
  • Snowmass Village Police Department
  • Aspen Police Department
  • Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District
  • Pitkin County Incident Management Team
  • Colorado State Patrol
  • Aspen Ambulance District
  • Eagle County Road and Bridge Department
  • Pitkin County Public Works
  • Basalt Public Works
  • Colorado Department of Transportation
  • Basalt Chamber of Commerce

“I think we had 50 responders,” said Thompson. “It was more than we’d throw at a structure fire, but it was intended to do that because we knew that we would have, number one, life safety; we didn’t want anybody to get injured. Number two, we wanted to save structures if we could, and, number three, we wanted to save infrastructure if we could.” 

Because of the months spent preparing an action plan and doing advance remediation work, such as building dams and retention ponds to mitigate flooding and debris flows higher up on Basalt Mountain, the response was everything Knott and Thompson hoped it would be (“We saw the plan work very well,” said Knott). But that doesn’t mean either is confident that things will go quite so well when the next incident occurs.

“It’s keeping me awake at night. I’m worried about it,” said Thompson. “This was a minor event that could have been so much worse. We didn’t get the alert out in time, this time. So what if that happens again? Are we going to lose people’s lives? If people live in a basement apartment in Old Town Basalt, we need to get them to higher ground. We need to get them out of that apartment. And the only way to do that is if people sign up and get notified.”

It’s a plea echoed by Knott, who said the most important thing people can do to help keep themselves safe is “sign up for Pitkin Alert. That’s our main way of communicating with people as incidents unfold. It’s very quick. It gets information out very quickly.”

Thompson also recommended that people in susceptible areas sign up for flood alerts by texting LCFLOOD to 888777 to receive weather warnings, weather watches and anything having to do with debris flow. Signing up for the alerts is a priority that has come into even sharper focus after Sunday’s rain, which basically flew under the radar of area weather services.

“This storm took us by surprise,” said Thompson. “The weather forecasters didn’t see that it was going to sit in one place. They recognized it and looked at it but decided not to throw out a warning about it because of different factors that they look at, so we got 911 calls before the weather service alerted us on this, and that’s not what we want to happen. We want to give a warning to the public ahead of time. So in that respect, I think we failed.”

To help ensure such a failure doesn’t happen again, Thompson and others had a long meeting Tuesday with weather services and the counties to try to formulate a better plan to keep people alerted without overdoing it.

“We don’t want to cry wolf to the public,” said Thompson. “We don’t want to set all these warnings off every time there’s a possibility that something’s going to go on, but, then again, we want to try to do advance notification as much as we can. There’s a fine line there.”

For now, the response team will stay busy clearing the retention ponds of rocks and debris to get them ready for the next incident, and they’ll evaluate the way Sunday’s situation was handled and tweak the parts that need adjusting, according to Knott. 

As for the burn scar itself, which has become perhaps even less stable after the flooding washed away stabilizing soil and rocks, it will stay the way it is for the foreseeable future, looming above Basalt with the threat of floods and debris flows to come.

“There’s still a lot of material up on that mountain,” said Thompson.