As heavy rain caused flooding, rockslides and mudslides Tuesday night, Fran and John Reynolds felt a little more settled than they might otherwise have.
The Reynolds live on U.S. Highway 550, about 14 miles north of Durango. When the 416 Fire was burning, John, a geologist, started to worry that their house was in a precarious position because of how badly the fire had burned the hillside and because he remembers the floods across the Animas Valley after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
So the couple built a 9-foot flood wall along a natural drainage on their property. On Tuesday night, they saw its effectiveness as it kept the raging, debris-filled water at bay.
“I swear, I really don’t know if we would have made it because it happened that fast,” she said. “If we hadn’t had the wall there, it would already be coming at our house by the time we recognized it.”
James Clark, meteorologist and information technology officer with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said a rain gauge about 15 miles northwest of Hermosa, just outside the burn scar, measured 0.46 inches in 20 minutes on Tuesday before it stopped reporting.
Heavier rainfall came on the east side of Hermosa Creek to Highway 550, but the Weather Service didn’t have a rain gauge for this area, he said.
“When you get rainfall rates at that rate, you’re definitely going to get debris flows in a burn area,” he said.
On Wednesday, campers at the KOA Campground on County Road 250 described how a river of mud, water and debris flooded the campground Tuesday evening.
The flood started as just a trickle, they said. As the stream sped up and grew, it picked up coolers, camp chairs – anything in its path.
“We were looking maybe five, six, sites down and like, ‘Oh, there’s someone’s cooler, there’s a fire pit, there’s chairs, there’s a kite,’ and then all of the sudden you look down at your feet – ‘it’s coming through here now,’” said Jerod Smith of Denver.
The floods closed U.S. Highway 550 and County Road 250 on Tuesday night, and the campground was evacuated.
The roads fully opened in both directions at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there is extensive debris on the side of the roads, so cleanup crews can be expected in coming days.
Mud and debris also covered railroad tracks for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, so train passengers had to hike to the road to waiting buses. The railroad canceled service Wednesday and Thursday but said in a news release that service will resume Friday.
Wednesday morning, about 30 evacuees waited at the Exhibit Hall at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. They were shuttled 12 at a time to the campground by a La Plata County Sheriff’s Office bus to retrieve their belongings.
Campers whose sites were the easiest to access were taken first. Then, officials worked to access the harder-to-reach spots blocked by mud and debris.
Tom Hahn of Michigan waited for the bus Wednesday. He said he was in town for a mountain bike trip from Durango to Moab that uses backcountry huts. However, since the campground was evacuated, he couldn’t join his friends for the first day’s ride.
Hahn and his wife, Ann, said debris flowed under their motor home.
“You start hearing the boulders going underneath our motor home going ‘boom, boom, boom,’” Tom Hahn said. “Luckily, it didn’t start to move. It stayed put. It probably would have slammed us into one of the cabins, which would have been OK. At least it didn’t put us in the river.”
Aaron and Rachel Carter, along with their children – ages 1, 3 and 8 – were visiting from Denver. When the floods began, the kids took shelter in the campground’s game room, but debris quickly blocked the door.
They got out, but Aaron said they had to wade through knee-deep mud to get to higher ground.
Anastasia and Colin Emms had just arrived at the campground when the rains started.
“We checked in, got into the cabin, sat down and the next thing we know, this stream came rolling down the road,” Colin said.
Anastasia said it looked like a river flowing through the campground.
“My mom – I sent her a picture and she was like, ‘Oh is that the river or is that the flood?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘No that’s just the flood.’”
Meteorologist Clark said the chance of rain strong enough to trigger flooding and debris flows is in the forecast Friday through Monday.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Herald Staff Writer Patrick Armijo contributed to this report.