Sandbags, concrete barriers, ditch reconstruction – about $7 million will be spent to protect residents north of Durango from flooding and debris flows, the new reality post 416 Fire.
For the past few weeks, crews with La Plata County, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and SGM, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering firm, have been surveying properties, mostly around Hermosa, figuring out what can be done to fortify homes and other structures.
In about three to four weeks, project managers hope to break ground on the project.
“After a major fire like this (the 416 Fire), people need help,” said Butch Knowlton, emergency manager for La Plata County.
Soils burned in a fire no longer have the ability to absorb moisture, so there’s an increased risk of flash flooding for homes and properties when heavy rains hit.
These fears were realized last July and September, when torrential rains damaged homes and businesses around Hermosa.
Knowlton said there hasn’t been a comprehensive cost estimate for how much damage was done during the flooding events. However, it wasn’t cheap. For some homes in the Pine Townhomes, 2 to 7 feet of mud entered the residences, he said, requiring extensive cleanup.
“It was a lot, a lot of money for some of those people,” he said.
Monitoring incoming storms that may cause flooding now requires constant vigilance from county and emergency managers in the area. A temporary radar system was brought in this year to help with the effort until a permanent location is secured.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said that after the fire, the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners, conducted a damage survey report.
The study estimated it would take about $7 million to perform a range of safety measures on about 120 homes in the path of potential flooding. But not all that cost will fall to the homeowner, she said.
The NRCS will cover 75% of the bill, and the state of Colorado will pick up 12.5%, leaving the remaining 12.5% to the property owner.
“It’s a great option for property owners … to provide critical resources for people who need assistance from potential flooding,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing some of the solutions unfold on the ground.”
On a recent survey, Jordan Dimick, a senior engineer with SGM, said there are two goals of the project: prevent loss of human life and protect property. Surveying started at the top of the watershed, so as to take into account and not affect downstream properties as water flows toward the Animas River.
A variety of methods will be implemented, from strategic placing of sandbags, redirecting how stormwater flows across property, to stabilizing the banks of Hermosa Creek and other drainages.
“We’ve got to get creative,” he said.
Past flooding events, and the monsoon this summer, have allowed project managers to better understand where problem areas are in the wake of the 416 Fire, which has caused flooding in areas that previously never experienced it.
One area of particular concern is Tripp Creek, which runs through a long and narrow canyon that starts around 10,500 feet in elevation and drops into the Animas Valley at Hermosa. Tripp Creek, which historically didn’t experience flooding, now threatens hundreds of homes and structures.
“A lot of homes are in harm’s way,” Dimick said. “It’s an urgent area.”
But it’s hard to predict what water will do, said Rod Clark with NRCS, especially in a new landscape formed by a large fire. A 10-year flooding event can quickly turn into a 100-year event, affecting more people.
In assessing homes for the project, Clark said project managers have used the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 500-year floodplain maps as a guide to be extra cautious.
“We have to look at it sort of a like a detective,” he said. “Because if something happens in the middle of the night, there’s little warning.”
Measures taken during the $7 million project are expected to remain in place for about two to five years, Dimick said, as vegetation grows back on the burn scar and stabilizes the ground.
Bobby Duthie, a local attorney representing more than 25 La Plata County residents and business owners in a lawsuit accusing the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad of starting the fire, declined to comment about whether his clients are part of the NRCS project and are seeking to recoup their share of the project costs from the train.
Regardless, if all goes according to schedule with the permitting and planning process, crews could start moving ground by the end of August.
“We want to get it done as fast as we can,” Clark said.