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Reports gauge severity of soil damage from East Troublesome, Williams Fork fires

This photo shows a comparison of low soil burn severity with roots and structure (top of shovel) vs. high soil burn severity with no soil structure or roots to help bind soil (bottom of shovel).
Photo from the U.S. Forest Service

 

GRANBY — The East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires scorched almost 200,000 acres across nearby Grand County this summer and fall, and new assessments from the U.S. Forest Service detail how badly the land was burned.

Soil burn severity maps cover a fire’s perimeter and serve as important reference tools that span multiple jurisdictions. For that reason, the Forest Service sees these maps as one of the most valuable work products that a Burned Area Emergency Response assessment team can produce.

The new assessments for the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires were released Thursday, Dec. 24, along with the burn maps for the two fires.

The assessments focus on post-fire threats to life and safety, property, natural resources and cultural resources on national forest lands along with offering some recommendations for how local, state and federal officials might mitigate the aftereffects.

The assessment teams do this by trying to determine soil burn severity and where post-fire snowmelt and precipitation events could lead to increased runoff, flooding, erosion, sediment delivery and heightened debris flows.

What is soil burn severity?

According to the Forest Service, the first step for identifying post-fire threats is to develop a soil burn severity map documenting the degree to which soil properties have changed from fire.

Fire-damaged soils can have low strength, high root mortality and increased erosion rates, especially as the severity of the fire damage worsens.

The maps break the damage down into four classifications — high, moderate, low and unburned — decided by soil properties such as forest floor cover, ash color, integrity of roots and their structure, and water repellency.

Low and unburned areas have minimal effects to the soil and, therefore, little to no noticeable impacts after the fire. At the same time, moderate burn areas indicate that some soil properties have been affected with up to 80% of the duff and litter layer, which absorbs precipitation like a sponge, being consumed by flames.

On the extreme end, findings include significant alterations to the soil with the complete consumption of litter and duff, a loss of root viability and changes that can lead to increased erosion and runoff.

The soil burn severity map for the East Troublesome Fire was released by the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, Dec. 24. The map shows how badly the fire burned the soil within the fire perimeter and serves as a valuable recovery and planning tool that will be used by multiple agencies.
Map from the U.S. Forest Service

The East Troublesome Fire

First reported Oct. 14 in the Arapaho National Forest, the East Troublesome Fire spread over 10,000 acres in three days and became the largest blaze in Grand County history when it exploded from 18,550 to 187,964 acres from Oct. 20-23. The cause is still under investigation.

Like many wildfires this summer and fall, the Troublesome blaze was fueled by widespread drought, dead and beetle-killed trees, high winds and poor overnight humidity recovery.

Its flames crossed Colorado Highway 125 on Oct. 21 and raced east into the Rocky Mountain National Park, jumping over the Continental Divide and reaching the western edge of Estes Park on Oct. 23.

Two teams from the Forest Service were required to complete the Burned Area Emergency Response assessment, and early season snowfall hampered their efforts and kept them from conducting a field survey in most of the burned area.

While the U.S. Forest Service has created a soil burn severity map for the entire fire outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the report notes that “a significant assessment workload of other critical Forest Service values remains and will be resumed in late spring 2021.”

According to the assessment, most of the land affected by the Troublesome fire falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, with 132,916 acres of national forest burned.

However, more than 19,600 acres of private property also burned in the fire, and another 17,858 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management were affected. The smallest portion of the burned area — 832 acres — is owned by the state.

This chart included in the East Troublesome Fire Burned Area Emergency Response assessment shows the distribution of land burned by ownership and severity.

Interestingly, 37% of the land suffered only low burn damage, 48% sustained moderate damage and 5% saw high soil burn severity. Only 10% of the land included in the East Troublesome Fire’s perimeter was characterized as unburned.

With an estimated 53% of the affected area seeing high or moderate soil burn severity, there will be an increased potential for erosion and flooding, especially in areas with high damage, according to the assessment.

The assessment also warns that areas that flood or had high debris flows before the fire are likely to see larger magnitude events after the fire. Also, areas that occasionally flood or have debris flows could see more frequent events, and areas that previously did not have streamflow or debris flows may now flood or have debris flows.

The predicted erosion rates are not expected to affect long-term soil productivity, but increased erosion can result in downstream sediment delivery that bulks flows and increases flooding effects. Increased erosion also can block culverts and other infrastructure and degrade water quality.

“This elevated post-fire response will gradually diminish as vegetation and ground cover levels recover each growing season, although some impacts including elevated snowmelt runoff are likely to persist for a decade or longer,” the report states, explaining that the degree of watershed response will be commensurate to the soil burn severity.

The soil burn severity map for the Williams Fork Fire was also released Thursday, Dec. 24.
Map from the U.S. Forest Service

Williams Fork Fire

The final Burned Area Emergency Response assessment for the Williams Fork Fire was completed Oct. 2, though after its completion, the fire kicked back up and the perimeter grew on the northern and southern ends.

The Williams Fork Fire was fueled by the same conditions that allowed the East Troublesome Fire to grow so fast.

Overall, the assessment found an estimated 60% of the area within the Williams Fork Fire perimeter had high or moderate soil burn severity.

“Increased erosion and flood flow potential are expected within and from these areas,” the report concluded, adding that the potential for erosion will be contingent on a variety of characteristics, such as soil texture, rock fragment content, slope and the soil burn severity and distribution.

With limited options for reducing post-fire peak stream flows, soil erosion and debris flows with either the Williams Fork Fire or the East Troublesome Fire, both assessments recommend focusing on mitigation measures to minimize threats to life and safety as well as damage to property.

These measures could be road and trail closures, trail stabilization, campground treatments and warning signs.

Additional road and weed treatments, and other treatments to protect natural and cultural resources, could be necessary during a follow-up assessment that’s expected in the spring or early summer.

East Troublesome Fire BAER report.pdf

Williams Fork Fire BAER report.pdf

This story is from SkyHiNews.com.

Losses in East Troublesome Fire enormous, still mounting

The Samuelsons survey the damage to the Troublesome Basin, where their outfitting company is based. Two longtime outfitters were hard hit in the East Troublesome Fire along with hundreds of homes. As the fire damage comes into focus, it's clear the losses will be far reaching.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

GRANBY — One of the most destructive fires in Colorado history has subsided, but the rebuilding efforts for Grand County are just beginning.

Formal damage assessments for structures in the county have been completed after the East Troublesome Fire scorched through nearly 200,000 acres in northern Grand County. According to those reports, 555 structures were destroyed, nine buildings suffered major damage and 34 sustained minor damage.

Among the buildings destroyed, 366 were residential and 189 were outbuildings. More than 200 were people’s primary residences.

Losing such a large number of homes in a county that’s already facing a critical housing shortage has been pressing on local officials’ minds. For Sheena Darland, operations manager for the Grand County Housing Authority, it’s painful to see the added strain.

“It’s almost like a sucker punch to the stomach,” she said. “It just makes you sick to think we already had a housing crisis going on, and now our community is uprooted.”

Two surveys went out — one to evacuees and one to homeowners — to begin connecting those in need of a place to stay with those willing to lease out their homes. Darland said more than 190 homeowners signed up to offer their houses to the roughly 50 families who responded needing some sort of housing.

However, many of these homes are only available through the spring. Darland and the county are working with community partners like Snow Mountain Ranch and Sun Communities to find a longer-term solution while seeking funding from state and federal sources.

Unfortunately, these solutions will take time.

“These people are not going to be able to rebuild overnight,” Darland said. “It’s going to be a long haul. And how do we keep them here?”

Scorched livelihoods

Ten buildings belonging to businesses were destroyed in the fire.

That includes buildings at C Lazy U Ranch, Winding River Ranch and Highland Marina. Two longtime outfitters in the area — Dave Parri’s Outfitting & Guide Service and Samuelson Outfitters — also have suffered heavy losses.

Three generations of the Samuelson family have operated in the Troublesome Basin for more than half a century. Cathy Samuelson and her husband, Richard “Sambo” Samuelson, lost most of the 2020 hunting season because of the fire, and two of their camps were destroyed. Two employees lost their homes in the fire, as well.

“It was just so overwhelming,” Cathy Samuelson said, reflecting on the loss. “I consider the basin a backyard and took care of it like it was my own.”

Samuelson is still waiting on a decision from the U.S. Forest Service on whether the area will be open to permitted outfitters next season. Until then, they cannot accept the deposits that usually help pay the bills.

Many buildings lost in the fire were insured, but some damages are more difficult to measure. Insurance and financial aid has been a struggle because the Samuelsons lost no physical, brick-and-mortar structures in the fire. That makes receiving aid difficult while their insurance company is saying many of their tangible losses are not covered.

Samuelson highlighted the deep ties both outfitters have in the community along with the business hunting brings into the county during offseasons.

“(We) have been outfitting and supporting the community for years,” she said. “Especially during the slow time of year, hunting is such a huge financial impact to this community. Its loss is trickle-down, a domino effect. It affects the lodging, the restaurants and those people that work for those businesses. There’s a huge impact.”

Acreage-wise, the fire burned almost 15% of the land in Grand County. With tourism and recreation being Grand’s primary economic drivers, the burn scar over public lands — spanning Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Rocky Mountain National Park — could hamper tourism for years to come.

The county said many ranches have reported a significant or total loss of hay intended for winter feeding of livestock. Damages and impacts associated with agricultural land and operations are ongoing.

The burned land incorporated significant grazing leases held by local producers, and impacts to agriculture irrigation supply and delivery are being assessed.

The East Troublesome Fire destroyed two of the camps operated by the Samuelson Outfitters. The family business still doesn’t know if it will be able to operate next season.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

Price tags

As for the costs to local agencies, the numbers are approximate but expensive.

In a letter to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the estimated costs of the county’s response has been about $352,000 as of Nov. 12. Those expenses include $80,000 for staff, logistics and emergency protective actions in the Office of Emergency Management; $150,000 for evacuations and emergency protective actions for the Grand County Sheriff’s Office; and $76,000 in overtime for county government employees.

One of the biggest concerns for the county is the fact that departments have reached their capacities.

“Grand County is not a large county in terms of population and overall budget, nor does it have depth within departments and emergency management,” Grand County commissioners wrote in the letter to the state. “Grand County has been responding to multiple fires for almost three months, leading to staff shortages, increased overtime and costs associated with necessary and required resources.”

Before the East Troublesome Fire, the county had been battling the nearly 15,000-acre Williams Fork Fire for over a month. Other fires the county responded to during this dry year included the Dice Hill Fire just on the other side of the county line in Summit County and the Deep Creek Fire outside Kremmling.

Debris removal from the East Troublesome Fire likely will be too much for the county to handle alone. Grand has estimated that debris could exceed over 30,000 cubic yards and cost more than $27 million to haul off.

County officials have reported that underinsured or uninsured homeowners have been reaching out asking for assistance with debris removal.

“The debris management costs can be upward of $50,000 to remove the debris for one single home,” County Manager Kate McIntire said. “I’ve heard that some families are only covered (by insurance) for debris management at $5,000.”

Water’s depths

Various watersheds hit by the fire — including the Poudre River, North Fork of the Big Thompson River, North Fork of the Colorado River, Three Lakes, Willow Creek and East Troublesome Creek — are expected to feel the effects for a long time.

These impacts will reach far beyond Grand County, which supplies water to major cities on the northern Front Range. Northern Water provides water to more than 1 million people, which is equal to 615,000 irrigated acres in northern Colorado.

“Sedimentation, debris flows and water contamination will threaten drinking water supplies for years to come,” the commissioners wrote.

Other environmental impacts like erosion and forest health are only just beginning to be evaluated.

Hazardous tree removal is another concern, as fire damage has made many trees in the burn area a falling hazard. The Colorado State Forest Service estimates more than 1,000 trees will need to be removed in county rights of way.

To give an idea of the extent of damage, the Colorado Department of Transportation had to cut more than 850 hazardous trees along the burned area of Colorado Highway 125 before the road could reopen.

Because the task ahead is so massive, the county has requested continued assistance and assessment regarding debris removal and management from the state.

Impacted utility companies also are asking the state for assistance, including Northern Water, Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District, Mountain Parks Electric and Xcel Energy.

Estimates peg the overall damage from the fire at nearly $200 million. That amount could go up as the aftermath grows clearer.

This story is from SkyHiNews.com.