Recent Vail Valley rain is welcome, but can prompt flooding, rockslides
• 6 inches of fast-flowing water can knock down an adult.
• 1,000-hour fuels can stay dry and burnable for 41 days.
• Fine fuels — grasses — can dry enough to burn an hour after rainfall.
• If you see standing water on the road, please slow down.
Sources: Eagle River Fire Protection District, Vail Fire Department
EAGLE COUNTY — After weeks of hot, dry conditions, the upper Eagle River Valley received some significant rainfall on Monday, July 23. There were problems almost immediately.
Eagle County’s EC Alert system reported a number of accidents in the upper valley, and westbound Interstate 70 in Dowd Canyon was closed for a while due to a rockslide.
With virtually the entire Interstate 70 mountain corridor in Stage 2 fire restrictions — which ban virtually all outdoor burning — we’re all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the usual summer monsoon rains. If those rains come, then it’s still going to be some time before those fire restrictions are relaxed.
Rain runs downhill, won’t sink in
The main problem is that drought has so dried out and packed the ground that a heavy rainfall won’t sink in; it will run downhill. That problem is more pronounced in areas where wildfires have hit.
Near Durango, heavy rains have poured off the burn scar of the 416 fire, contaminating the Animas River with mud, ash and debris.
The burn scar of the Lake Christine fire near Basalt will behave the same way.
Wildfires have been relatively minor on the I-70 side of Eagle County, but danger still exists even where nothing has burned.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak said it’s still so dry that fine fuels such as grasses can dry out and be easily sparked with as little as an hour of direct sunshine after a rain storm. Conversely, very dry, beetle-killed logs are sometimes called “1,000-hour” fuels. That means those logs will stay dry enough to burn for more than 40 days, even if frequent rain or snow comes.
Given slick ground virtually everywhere, hillsides are more prone than usual to flash flooding.
Eagle River Fire Protection District Community Risk Manager Tracy LeClair said people need to be aware of the risks flash flooding can bring.
“Flood can happen with no notice at all,” LeClair said, adding that people need to be careful, especially if they have children and pets near streambanks. Fast-flowing water can eat away ground near those banks, creating unstable surfaces.
Then there’s the debris carried by floodwaters. LeClair said that debris can often clog culverts, creating more problems as water then floods over roadways.
The danger from fast-falling water also appears on local roads.
Colorado Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Tracy Trulove said that department monitors several spots in this part of Eagle County that are prone to problems from fast-moving water, from “the narrows” portion of Vail Pass to parts of Battle Mountain and a spot in Avon where mud flows from Nottingham Road onto the interstate.
The best way to drive through rain is simply to slow down, Trulove said.
“We see a lot of auto accidents” from heavy rains, Novak said. “The roads don’t drain very well. We’ve seen a lot of accidents (in Dowd Canyon) from hitting a very large puddle there.”
The problem with standing water is the same as with floodwater: You can’t see how deep it is, Novak said.
The answer is to simply slow down.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.
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