After the Hyde Park wildfire in 2012 burned 87,000 acres through the Roosevelt National Forest in Larimer County, authorities identified 2,000 acres to lay down wood mulch for water mitigation efforts in the event of runoff and flash flooding in the burn scar area.
At the time, it was the second-largest wildfire in state history. But the historic 2020 wildfire season is presenting an entirely different beast.
“We’re looking at 20,000 acres (of wood mulch) just for Cameron Peak,” said Brad Piehl, a forest hydrologist consultant working with state and local authorities. “The scale of these things is probably 10 times worse than what we’ve seen before.”
Wide swaths of Colorado are charred to their core after the three largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history last summer — but the dangers of those infernos often are only seen after the smoke has long cleared.
Flash flooding in the Poudre Canyon on Tuesday left one person dead and three more missing as monsoonal rains over Cameron Peak’s massive burn scar sent water cascading through the canyon.
Larimer County officials are now quickly working to prevent another disaster from hitting the same area.
The search for the three missing people continued Friday, while emergency personnel were beginning the long slog of clearing debris and preventing key waterways from damming.
The name of the game right now is education and awareness for those in the canyon, said Jered Kramer, a Larimer County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
“We’re trying to help people remember to be mindful of their surroundings since situations can change so quickly,” he said.
That means climbing quickly to higher ground when people see water coming, because “you may only have a moment to move as you hear an alert,” Kramer said.
As authorities anxiously watch weather patterns over the next week, crews will work to remove the debris that came along with the flash flood — a process that could take a week or two, said Lori Hodges, Larimer County’s director of emergency management.
The priorities along the river are safety concerns and debris blocking bridges, she said. There are two temporary sites where crews can haul the runoff before it’s eventually taken to a landfill.
When rain does come, there’s a significant potential for other watersheds in the area to see similar flooding.
“We’re definitely very concerned about the impacts we could have from another flood event,” Hodges said. “The next couple weeks will be pretty critical.”
Wood mulch has proven effective in mitigating after wildfires, Piehl said, but the “scope and scale of the Cameron Peak fire is something we haven’t experienced.”
“I don’t think we understand how to respond to the scale of that fire,” Piehl said.
Climate scientists have warned that the warming planet will create more severe weather patterns — worsening fires and their aftereffects across Colorado and the West.
Flash flooding and mudslides in recent weeks have forced repeated closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, along with other roadways in Colorado’s High Country, as transportation officials prepare drivers for further closures during the monsoonal period.
Vegetation has started to come back in some areas of the Cameron Peak burn scar, Hodges said, but it can take multiple years in the most serious spots for ground cover to fully return and hold the dirt from sliding down during heavy rain.
For now, officials in Larimer County can only prepare as much as they can and sound the sirens when the weather looks ominous.
“This is gonna be our life,” Kramer, the sheriff’s office spokesman, said.
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