Favorable weather conditions have helped slow the 416 Fire, allowing firefighters to shift their focus from fire suppression to repairing areas damaged during firefighting efforts.
At the same time, forecasters say heavy rainfall could pose a danger to the public and fire crews.
The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood watch until 9 p.m. Friday for areas around the 416 Fire burn scar. A public meeting to discuss potential flooding is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Miller Middle School, 2608 Junction St.
La Plata County officials are preparing for the possibility of flash floods and debris flows, but everything depends on what the storm does, said Butch Knowlton, director for La Plata County Emergency Management.
Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said there’s a chance for heavy rain Friday afternoon and evening across the region.
Small amounts of water on the burn scar can trigger debris flows, because the soil can’t hold water and there is a the lack of vegetation providing erosion control. Therefore, heavy rainfall is of particular concern, Phillips said.
Fire crews are shifting their focus to repairing areas that were damaged during fire suppression efforts, in part to prevent erosion and rehabilitate the forest.
As of Friday, firefighters had reached 100 percent of their containment objective, said Kris Erikson, a spokeswoman for the National Incident Management Organization in charge of the fire.
A containment line is built around only 45 percent of the 54,129-acre burn area, but those lines are near structures, roads and other areas of high value. The fire will be allowed to burn into the wilderness and within existing boundaries until Mother Nature – in the form of rain and snow – takes care of lingering hot spots.
Firefighters have known would be unlikely to build containment lines on the western edge of the fire, which is dominated by steep and remote terrain in the Hermosa Creek Wilderness, Erikson said.
In coming days, crews will perform fire suppression repair. The goal is to make the forest look like it did before suppression crews arrived on scene. Handlines and dozer lines leave marks across the vegetation, so the majority of the work will be repairing those lines.
“They leave these piles of trees and brush and the dozer dirt off to the side of the road, and it’s a mess,” Erikson said. “Putting it back helps us control erosion, and it looks better.”
The focus at first will be on repairing damage caused by firefighting efforts. Later, crews will focus on rehabilitating parts of the forest.
One technique involves using brush that was cut down during fire suppression efforts and placing it along damaged areas. Crews might also use wood chippers to grind fallen brush and spread it on the forest floor.
Another aspect of repair involves erosion management, including reseeding the landscape and digging water channels to direct water flow and protect against flooding.
An unknown factor for everybody is how much rain will fall.
Firefighters could be set back in their repair efforts if heavy rain creates dangerous conditions or prohibits access to remote locations.
Knowlton said residents should be aware if they live in a flood-prone area, and if so, pay attention to warnings issued by county and weather officials.
Areas that are of concern include Tripp Creek and Falls Creek.
While the fire has slowed, flare ups producing smoke can be expected for a while.
The area inside the fire perimeter makes a mosaic pattern, Erikson said. There are black, burned areas, but green areas remain that can still burn.
The best thing for putting out the fire would be long, extended rainfall and high humidity. Short burst of heavy rain are helpful, but not as much as steady rain events, Erikson said.
“We never take our eyes off the fire; there’s always somebody – engines patrolling or watching an area of the fire to make sure everything’s OK,” Erikson said.