It’s going to take about $7 million to protect about 120 homes north of Durango from the potential of flooding and mudslides coming off the 416 Fire burn scar, according to a county official.
In June 2018, the 416 Fire broke out, which went on to burn an estimated 54,000 acres of mostly San Juan National Forest lands in the Hermosa Creek watershed.
Because soils burned in a fire no longer have the ability to absorb moisture, there’s an increased risk of debris flows and flooding for homes and property below the burn area. These fears were realized in July and September of last year, when devastating floods hit homes around Hermosa.
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, estimating it would take about $7 million to perform a range of safety measures on about 120 homes in the path of potential flooding.
Megan Graham, La Plata County spokeswoman, said the NRCS is able to cover 75% of the cost, about $5.3 million. The remaining $1.7 million or so, however, will have to be picked up by property owners, though Graham said the state of Colorado may be able to help cover some of the funding.
The NRCS, as well as a company contracted by the county, are in the design and engineering stage of the project, Graham said, which will include work such as building water barriers and redirecting water channels. The NRCS is also awarding the county about $400,000 to pay for these efforts.
While there is no target start date for construction, she said, “obviously we want to get work done as quickly as possible,” hopefully in time to protect homes from monsoon rains in the summer that can trigger floods.
Chris Tipton, a fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, said the past year has caused a moment of reflection for the agency after fighting Colorado’s sixth-largest wildfire, sparking conversations around the restoration and resiliency work that needs to be done post-blaze.
Fortunately, the 416 Fire didn’t burn at as high of an intensity as originally thought, Tipton said. Only 3% of the fire burned at “high intensity,” while the rest burned in a low-to-moderate mosaic experts say benefits the overall health of the forest in the long run.
Tipton said there’s a balance to implementing restoration work in burn areas: The Forest Service doesn’t want to go into a burn scar too soon and do too much work before the landscape has settled, in terms of erosion and tree-fall.
Yet, the Forest Service wants to open access to public lands. The 416 Fire burn area opened May 1, and so far, there hasn’t been any immediate issues, Tipton said, but the agency is keeping an eye on potential floods during the summer monsoon season.
This summer, the Forest Service will start replanting in certain areas, get a better idea of the damage to the trail network and, perhaps most important, Tipton said, remove trees at risk of falling in campgrounds or along trails.
“Post-fire environments are not something that’s immediately repaired,” he said. “It’s a mutli-year process.”
Tipton said a lot of things went right in the response to the 416 Fire: Partnerships were tested and proven, no one was seriously injured and no structures were lost.
Even after a year of retrospection, he said there was just no way the fire could have been contained on day one without risking the lives of firefighters.
“Tactically and strategically, I wouldn’t change a single thing we did on day one,” he said.
As the start of the fire hits the one-year mark, and the landscape begins to heal, the biggest thing on Tipton’s mind is the turnaround of snowpack from 2018 to this year.
“I am celebrating the moisture we’re having,” he said.