JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire.
A decade after the Missionary Ridge wildfire chewed through most of 72,962 acres from Hermosa to Bayfield, the landscape is a patchwork of the beautiful and the beastly.
Stands of verdant aspen and Gambel oak contrast with hillsides of blackened sticks that were ponderosa pine and other conifers. Barren hillsides are scarred by gullies torn open by tons of rain-loosened boulders, debris and ash hurtling down steep slopes.
Within the fire perimeter, 31 percent of the area burned at high intensity, 30 percent at moderate intensity, 19 percent at low intensity and 20 percent was untouched.
“The recovery of the landscape is site-specific,” said Craig Goodell, a U.S. Forest Service fire mitigation and education specialist. “It’s a mosaic, depending on the vegetation and severity of the fire.”
Low-elevation ponderosa pine took the hardest punch because the severity of the fire was outside the specie’s natural range of burning, Goodell said.
Aspen and Gambel oak, on other hand, which regenerate from the roots, benefit from fire, which stimulates their growth, he said.
The path of the fire, visible from the valley floor, was followed by thousands of spectators.
Less visible, but no less awesome, were the heat-produced tornadoes that snapped trees and upended vehicles at Vallecito Reservoir and the landslides that sent tons of mud, ash and debris into houses, closed roads and polluted water systems.
Butch Knowlton, director of the Office of Emergency Management for La Plata County, sounded the alarm even before the fire was suffocated. He was concerned about the effect of rain on bare terrain.
“I said the fire would be the easy part and that the hardest thing would be flooding, because the fire was significantly altering drainages,” Knowlton said.
In September 2002, an inch of rain set off landslides that damaged houses in Vallecito and left up to 6 feet of mud and debris on East Animas Road (County Road 250).
“Intense fire cooks the soil, leaving a glaze that repels raindrops,” Knowlton said. “Drops collect, and when they find the path of least resistance, a livestock or elk path, they begin to pick up pebbles and dirt and then rocks and then boulders.”
The mass quickly picks up speed on steep canyon slopes, Knowlton said. The descent from 10,000 feet of elevation to 6,500 in less than three miles gives an idea of the force of the flow, he said.
Knowlton said a 60,000-pound road grader removing debris from County Road 250 backed off when a moving wall of mud began pushing it into a ditch.
The steep, forbidding peaks and canyons on Missionary Ridge led federal fire officials to list the fire as the worst mountain-terrain fire of 2002, Knowlton said.
The National Interagency Fire Center sent a Burned Area Emergency Response Team to La Plata County to assess damages and examine risks. The team installed 20 rain gauges in strategic headwater locations on Missionary Ridge. Runoff data was fed to a satellite that relayed information to county offices.
“Information on the amount of rain and the rate of flow was so accurate that personnel from our Road and Bridge Department could be deployed in anticipation of a flow,” Knowlton said. “There were occasions that the flow reached a road within minutes of the expected time.”
Among other measures taken to halt or slow the effects of rain:
Aerial seeding of 15,000 acres with a variety of grasses, forbs and conifer seeds.
Log erosion barriers were placed on 7,300 acres.
Straw matting and mulch were used to slow the flow of runoff.
Streams and gullies were monitored to clear the buildup of debris.
A structure was built to divert debris from the spillway at Lemon Reservoir.
Culverts were installed, hazardous trees were removed along roads and trails, in campgrounds and near the boundary with private property and trails repaired.
Schoolchildren under guidance of Forest Service employees and volunteers planted ponderosa pine seedlings.
Residents in the Rafter J subdivision rented 40 Nubian goats to munch weeds that were potential fire fuel.
The city of Durango spent $1.2 million on improvements to its water-treatment plant to handle ash and mud in rivers.
Durango Herald file photos
Durango Herald file photo
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file
Durango Herald file photo