All eyes are on an approaching Category 4 hurricane off the coast of Mexico that could bring a significant amount of rain to Southwest Colorado early next week and could cause devastating flooding on the 416 Fire burn scar.
Emphasis on the word “could.”
“The storm is far enough out that we can’t say for certain whether the San Juans will be in the swath of heaviest rain,” said Jon Harvey, a geology professor at Fort Lewis College.
“If the San Juans do get hit hard, we will very likely see localized flooding and debris flows from the burn scars. ... It would be the most significant rain event in months, with rainfall totals measured in inches rather than tenths of inches.”
As of Friday afternoon, Hurricane Rosa strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane as it approached the coast of northern Baja California.
Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said Hurricane Rosa is expected to make landfall sometime between 5 a.m. Monday and 5 a.m. Tuesday.
Remnants of the storm could hit Southwest Colorado as early as Monday, but weather forecast models show the best chance for rain is Tuesday, possibly as late as Tuesday night.
When and where the hurricane makes landfall will determine how much rain is in store for the parched Southwest Colorado landscape, which has been in extreme drought for months.
As of Friday afternoon, weather prediction models remained undecided about when and where Hurricane Rosa will make landfall, Stackhouse said.
“Once it makes landfall, we’ll have a better idea,” she said. “Our confidence is definitely increasing, for sure, but the timing is still iffy.”
If Southwest Colorado ends up in the storm’s bull’s-eye, precipitation totals could be upward of an inch in some areas, Stackhouse said.
“We could see quite a good bit of rain with this,” she said. “It’s something we’re watching over the coming days.”
Emergency managers in La Plata County said they are aware of the potential storm and are getting ready for possible flooding on the 416 Fire burn scar.
Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management, said he has been in communication with the Weather Service, tracking the storm.
Knowlton said the best thing the county can do to prepare is track and predict where storms are headed. If flooding seems apparent, the next step is to notify residents and have emergency equipment in place to respond.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said that over the last several weeks, nearly 3,000 sand bags have been delivered to residents in the potential path of flooding.
The Sheriff’s Office has large trucks equipped with bench seating and stairwells in the event evacuations are needed, he said.
“All we can really do is respond and protect people,” Smith said. “We’ve been telling people to be prepared as possible … and ready to respond when it actually does happen.”
This is the new reality whenever there’s a chance of rainfall on the burn scar, Knowlton said.
“We still need to worry, we still need to be vigilant and watch these storms that do come in the burn area,” he said.
Jeff Givens, a self-taught weather observer in Durango with a Facebook following of more than 6,000 people, wrote Friday that often the only way to break a drought is through a major precipitation event.
“Therefore, breaking a drought usually creates additional problems, in our case flash flooding in burn scar areas, which can be catastrophic, especially with the volume of water that would fall in a short period of time,” he wrote.
“So although it may sound like I am rooting for the storm at times, I (am) very aware of the potential impacts it could have. So be careful what you wish for, 2 inches or more of rain in 24 hours or so ... would really push our resources at this point.”
Requests for comment from the National Hurricane Center were not immediately returned Friday.
Local emergency officials urged residents who may be affected by flooding to sign up for the warning system Code Red.