Weber Fire recovery advances

Mudslides remain a threat around the burnarea

“Maybe it’ll come back. Maybe it won’t,” said Pete Doerfer, whose alfalfa fields were damaged by a mud and ash flows after the Weber Fire. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“Maybe it’ll come back. Maybe it won’t,” said Pete Doerfer, whose alfalfa fields were damaged by a mud and ash flows after the Weber Fire.

The boxes are still stacked in the middle of Vonnie Doerfer’s living room. The family portraits, the notebooks mapping the family’s genealogy and records from her and her husband’s life spill out of the boxes.

“And I left out a lot,” Doerfer said.

The Doerfers were one of dozens of Mancos-area homeowners evacuated last month when the Weber Fire blazed across the mountains south and east of town.

Since Doerfer and her husband, Pete, returned home, she hasn’t had the time or the energy to put away all the boxes. So they sit in the living room, a constant reminder of the 10,000-acre fire that came within a half mile of their house.

The fire first lit up on June 22, and the days since have been “terrible,” Doerfer said. Even though the flames have long been put out, the breeze still carries the smell of burnt toast through their windows and the couple has had trouble breathing because of smoke, dust and ash that blows over their property.

More than a month after the Weber Fire tore through Montezuma County, reminders of it are inescapable: the blackened hillside of Menefee Mountain, the mud and ash that flows down the slopes when it rains, the charred remains of a boys summer camp cabin – the only structure that burned in the fire.

But life continues. Cleanup, restoration and stabilization efforts are under way, and forest specialists expect to see some green on the hillside as early as the fall.

The first sprigs of new grass are already peeking up through the charred ground.

Working through the fire

Beverly and Doug Capelin were in Durango when they got the call that they would have to evacuate from the 130-acre property that served as the base camp for Deer Hill Expeditions, their wilderness and service expedition program for teens. The staff members had 30 minutes to grab what they could. Then for almost a week, the Capelins set up base camp at their Durango home, sending off groups of kids into the wilderness, preparing meals, coordinating equipment runs and conducting training classes.

The fire became an exercise in adaptation that helped bond the staff members, Capelin said.

It was later they learned the fire burned their boys cabin, part of another structure and 10-20 acres of their property. But instead of sadness, Capelin said she has felt only gratitude for the firefighters and her staff members.

“Everyone gave it 150 percent,” she said. “It’s hard not to be moved.”

Rivers of mud

Though the fire didn’t burn any homes, it left a landscape vulnerable to major mud and ash flows when the rain falls. Lacking major vegetation and caked with ash, the burned areas initially repel precipitation, sending walls of water thick with dirt and ash tumbling onto roads and into canyons.

The fire has essentially “oven dried” the soil, said Chuck Jachens, a hydrologist working with the Bureau of Land Management on post-burn restoration.

“The water just beads up and runs off, and that’s what is happening on these first rainstorms,” he said.

As it runs down the hill, the water turns from “chocolate milk to a milkshake,” Jachens said. The thick, viscous liquid gains enough density that it easily carries, rocks, trees and other objects in its path.

During the first rains after the fire, mudslides took out fences, washed cars into ravines, demolished the vehicles and belongings of a family camping in the area and caused damage to several stretches of rural roads near the burn area.

The mudslides also devastated much of Pete and Vonnie Doerfer’s alfalfa crop. Rivers of mud and ash flooded over 15 of their 40 acres of alfalfa, coating the plants and ground with a thick layer of mud and burned vegetation that was 8 inches deep in some places. A trail of rocks, most bigger than a football, were in the field east of him. Pete Doerfer isn’t expecting any help from the government, and he didn’t buy flood insurance.

“We’re not going to get a dime from anyone,” he said.

Restoring burned areas

The sky threatened rain as Chuck Jachens toured the Weber Fire’s burn area one afternoon last month. His boots sank into mud and then crunched over blackened grass and leaves as he walked along the easternmost edge of the fire’s perimeter. In the week after the Weber Fire was contained, Jachens and a team of six others helped create a plan to stabilize and rehabilitate the portion of burned lands owned by the BLM.

The team analyzed potential risks to life and property, cultural resources and the habitat of threatened or endangered species and advised how to minimize risk and mitigate the effects.

The BLM will rehabilitate fire lines that were cleared of vegetation and reseed certain burned out sections that have a moderate grade and were severely burned – about 1,400 acres. Almost a quarter of the area within Weber’s perimeter was severely burned.

Reseeding native plants in the area will reduce erosion and help buffer against invasive species, Jachens said. The reseeded plants will take two to three years to become fully established, but almost as soon as they sprout “they’ll start doing some good,” he said. Grass will grow back the fastest, followed by shrubs and Gambel oak, Jachens said.

The ash and mud flows, while devastating to some crops like alfalfa, is actually beneficial to native plants that can withstand the force of the flow, he said.

The agency hasn’t found any structures that are in imminent danger if flooding occurs again, but farmland continues to be vulnerable, Jachens said. The BLM can’t do much outside the bounds of federal land though, so private fields, county-owned roads and properties in subdivisions are in the hands of those respective agencies and landowners, he said.

The BLM won’t be able to nail down the total cost of rehabilitation until it creates a final plan sometime in the next few weeks, said Tom Rice, assistant field manager.

Up to this point, the cost to fight the Weber Fire approached $6 million, with the BLM and the State Forest Service each paying a portion of the final bill based on acreage and equipment usage.

Lessons learned

The Weber Fire was tough to battle because it burned aggressively day and night for the first 72 hours, requiring constant work from crews and engines, said Craig Goodell, incident commander for the Type 3 federal team that managed the fire during the first two days.

“We basically were worked straight from Friday night to Sunday evening,” Goodell said.

No houses were lost thanks in large part to community wildfire-protection programs developed by the subdivisions east of the fire. The houses’ survival is an important lesson in the effectiveness of programs that minimize fuels around houses and roads, Goodell said.

Communication and collaboration between local and federal agencies were also crucial to fighting the fire, said Ed Martinez assistant fire chief with the Mancos Fire Department.

The fire department got help from numerous other volunteer agencies throughout the area, stretching from Pleasantview to San Juan County, N.M.

“We learned how important community support is and how important volunteer firefighters are,” Martinez said. “Without both of those, we would have had a tough time doing what we did.”

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