As flames recede, dangers remain from Grizzly Creek Fire
'The fire goes away and you think you are safe'
Long after the smoke clears out of the valley and the flames are all extinguished, we will still be living with the impacts of the Grizzly Creek Fire.
“We know that after a fire, depending on how hot it burns, you have elevated risk of debris flow,” said Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron. “The fire goes away and you think you are safe. But the risk still exists.”
For the next couple of years — and maybe as long as the next decade— debris including ash, soil and burned vegetation will slough off hillsides in the burn area. As those materials slide down the steep hillsides in Glenwood Canyon, they will bring boulders along. Those are hardly ideal conditions for Interstate 70 operation.
“A normal rainstorm can lead to a lot more debris flow downstream when it comes to a burn scar,” Barron said. “I was in the canyon a lot during the fire and you see rock tumbling down all the time.”
A team from the U.S. Geological Survey, along with a U.S. Forest Service Burn Area Emergency Response team has already completed an initial assessment of the Grizzly Creek Fire area. According to David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office, the BAER team will do more extensive analysis next week.
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The teams’ initial analysis map outlines large swaths of land where debris flow is likely.
“We will be looking at how to do mitigation. In a place like Glenwood Canyon, given how steep it is, we may be limited as to what can be done,” Boyd said.
Subject to future closure
According to Elise Thatcher, the regional communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, motorists should be prepared for more frequent I-70 Glenwood Canyon closings because of Grizzly Creek impacts.
“People need to understand we called it a limited reopening on Monday. There will be additional closures, “ Thatcher said. “The likely closures in the near future will be due to a variety of factors. Rain and debris is certainly one of them. We want to make sure folks are prepared for that.”
Barron noted that the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction has been tapped to help with Glenwood Canyon road information. Because people need advance warning of potential driving hazards, the NWS will be more likely to issue Flash Flood Watch warnings in the burn scar area. The first example of the expanded warning happened Wednesday when rainstorms were forecast locally.
“The National Weather Service doesn’t want to over-alert, but they do want to get info out there early so people can make travel decisions,” Barron said.
Thatcher agreed that checking the weather is a necessary precaution before embarking on a Glenwood Canyon trip.
“It is very different driving though the canyon right now,” Thatcher said. “We need people to check the weather before they drive. If there is rain in the forecast, they need to have an alternate route plan at their fingertips in case we have a closure.”
Eagle County officials are drawing on their experiences from the 2018 Lake Christine Fire as they develop plans for the aftermath of the Grizzly Creek Fire.
“Areas near a burn scar are at risk of debris flows, mudslides and/or flash flooding,” said Kris Widlak with Eagle County.
Debris flows are fast-moving, powerful mixtures of mud, rocks, boulders, and even entire trees. They are most common during intense rain after wildfires. When a wildfire burns a slope, it increases the chance of debris flows for several years.
Alerts about the threat of flash flooding, debris flows or mudslides in Glenwood Canyon or other areas, will be available at http://www.ECAlert.org, http://www.garco911.com, http://www.cotrip.org and https://agents.floodsmart.gov/flood-after-fire-in-your-community
She noted that CDOT has developed a revised emergency closure plan and has personnel and equipment stationed in the canyon to respond. Beyond rainfall and potential debris issues, there are several other complicating factors for I-70 Glenwood Canyon travel right now. A large resurfacing project was underway when the fire ignited and crews are now back at work. That project is still slated for completion in October. “It will feel a lot smoother and be a lot more durable than the previous material,” Thatcher said.
As it evaluates road conditions, weather forecasts and construction traffic, Thatcher said CDOT is also studying how the fire impacted its existing rockfall mitigation structures.
With all these concerns related to I-70 Glenwood Canyon, Thatcher said CDOT has made a special safety appeal to motorists.
“We are really hoping the people will stay focused on the road while they are in the canyon,” Thatcher said. “Don’t be trying to take photos or video while driving through.”
The I-70 Glenwood Canyon rest areas are closed and cars are not allowed to stop on road shoulders in the canyon. Slower speeds are being enforced and traffic is being directed to a single lane, head-to-head pattern in the construction area. Thatcher said CDOT understands that people are naturally curious about the fire scene, but stressed it is critical that motorists keep eyes on the road.
“One crash, as everyone knows, can delay everything for everyone. If we can prevent that, it is a good day for everyone,” Thatcher said.