The contrast between June 1, 2018 and June 1, 2019 could not be more stark.
As of June 1, snowpack in the Animas River Basin is 1,493% of the median. Last year on the same day, it was 0%. This Memorial Day weekend, Purgatory was open for skiing. Last Memorial Day weekend, the 358 Fire was burning off of County Road 245.
On June 1, the sun finally came out after a week of rain, snow and cloudy skies. Last June 1, the 416 Fire ignited and began what became the defining event for our community in 2018. What a difference a year makes!
On June 1, 2018, the Stage II fire restrictions that the Board of County Commissioners had adopted earlier that week took effect. We had entered Stage I fire restrictions on May 1 – far earlier than is typical. The “exceptional drought” that took hold across southwestern Colorado last year was the cause: the result of little to no soil moisture, very low streamflows and virtually non-existent precipitation. The 416 Fire – named such because 415 fires had ignited before it – took advantage of these conditions and burned more than 55,000 acres by the time it was fully contained on July 31.
During those two months, hundreds of firefighters battled to keep the fire from homes and businesses. They were 100 percent successful and our community will be forever grateful for that.
While the incident management teams that convened to fight the fires did heroic work on the front lines, La Plata County served a critical support function to keep the community safe.
Our Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Management and Road & Bridge departments coordinated evacuations and road closures, our Human Services Department coordinated evacuation centers and sheltering, La Plata County Search & Rescue coordinated and staffed the call center to answer questions and our communications staff kept the community informed of all these variables.
This was a tireless effort that represented La Plata County’s key values and priorities: to protect the community’s health, safety and welfare. We commit to this every day in all the work we do, but times of emergency bring that effort to center stage. It does not stop when the fire dies down, though.
Since last summer, the tides have turned rather dramatically and fire concerns have taken a back burner to those about flooding.
Areas below the 416 Fire burn scar are particularly susceptible to flooding because the fire changed soil composition and burned the vegetation that normally holds moisture – though some regrowth has alleviated the threat somewhat. Last summer and fall, many homes and properties experienced the impact of this formula, and the county is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to bring some relief and protection to property owners impacted or threatened by flooding through the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program.
The county is coordinating this effort and NRCS will pay 75 percent of the cost of these projects, which is an incredible value for property owners to be protected against future flooding and debris flows as the burn scar heals.
Just as important as mitigation, preparing for future incidents is a critical undertaking for the county. We know that the weather radars that cover our region cannot see areas below 28,000 feet. We also know that many of the storms that dump heavy rain and snow over Southwest Colorado roll through in that blind spot. During and after the 416 Fire, we had a temporary radar unit on Missionary Ridge – on loan from the University of Oklahoma – so that we could see what was coming. That unit has returned for another 90-day loan, and we have secured funding from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to purchase a permanent radar system for our region. We are working on a location for that system – and all the logistics that go into siting a radar unit – but have built a coalition of partner groups who will invest in the operation and maintenance of the radar that will benefit the entire region.
After last summer’s fire-related challenges – evacuations, business and forest closures, poor air quality, flooding and debris flows, and so many others – it is a welcome reprieve to focus on mitigating past issues and preparing for future events, all while enjoying a vibrant green spring and full rivers. Do your part to enjoy – and be prepared: Sign up for emergency notifications through our CodeRED system available at public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/BFEA18547A8D
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.