After the 416 Fire in summer 2018, the risk of floods and debris flows became a new, constant threat to the homes below the burn scar around Hermosa, said John McLeod, who lives in the area.
“It’s really nerve-wracking because if you’re in town and see rain clouds in the valley, you have to drop what you’re doing and dash back up,” he said. “Because you have to be there to set the sandbags out and stay there until the storm passes.”
Although no homes were lost, the 416 Fire swept through an estimated 54,000 acres of heavily wooded land, mostly in the Hermosa Creek watershed. Now, the real risk to private property is floods from the burn scar.
Soils burned in a fire no longer have the ability to absorb moisture, so there’s an increased risk of flash flooding, which happened in August and September 2018 when torrential rains damaged homes and businesses around Hermosa.
So it’s welcome news, McLeod said, that a multimillion dollar project to protect homes and private property north of Durango is set to be completed before the monsoon season is expected to hit this summer.
“I really have great hopes for it,” he said.
Since the fire, La Plata County, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and SGM, a Glenwood Springs-based engineering firm, have formed a partnership to figure out how to best fortify homes and property.
With about $7 million at their disposal (NRCS covers 75%, the state of Colorado picks up 12.5%, leaving the remaining 12.5% to property owners), the project started construction last fall and is set to wrap up by July.
Jordan Dimick with SGM said the project has broken up into 10 different areas around Hermosa, usually separated by different drainages, which were ranked on the severity of flash-flood risks.
The areas that showed the highest need for protections were homes along Tripp Creek, Pine Acres, Irongate and around Honeyville. While 120 properties were initially surveyed, about 45 property owners ultimately signed onto the project.
Protection measures include building physical barriers, either out of concrete or natural berms, to redirect debris flows. Channels were regraded to keep flows within original paths. And walls were built to safeguard homes.
At Tripp Creek, a settlement pond was constructed so floods are directed into a catchment area, giving rocks, trees and other debris time to settle at the bottom before continuing downstream.
“We tried to make it look as nice as we can, but at the end of day, this is to protect people and property. A lot of the project is sandbags and concrete barriers,” Dimick said.
Jimbo Buickerood, president of Hermosa Creek Ditch Co., said the biggest issue is the sediment that is dumped after rains into the ditch, which serves about 40 to 45 homes and properties.
“We’re fairly confident (the project) will help,” he said. “I think all of us are realistic, and doubt it’s going to be the silver bullet saving us from the sediment that comes from larger events. But hopefully it will help us reopen quicker.”
With this project, which focuses on private property, set to wrap up by July, focus is now being put on a broader watershed-wide mitigation effort.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded the effort a $500,000, with the county contributing $150,000.
In the past few weeks, a broad range of stakeholders has been meeting to discuss where best to invest funds to help restore areas of the Hermosa Creek watershed.
Some of the main goals, Graham said, are to reduce sediment load into waterways, protect irrigation water and aquatic habitat, and ensure public safety from flash flooding.
“Now it’s time to get into more technical designs, weigh the costs and see what can be done based on our priorities,” she said.
Amanda Kuenzi with Mountain Studies Institute said a survey open to the public also held a reoccurring theme that people wanted early warning systems and permanent radar in place.
The survey is still open and can be found at: https://bit.ly/2yzxFMa.
“We asked what’s the most important thing to people, and public safety was one that kept coming up,” she said.
A temporary weather station is expected to return this summer as local officials continue to work to secure a permanent facility.
Frank Kugel with Southwestern Water Conservation District said a new gauge was installed in Hermosa Creek, which will help alert emergency managers if there’s a spike in flows.
The water district and the Bureau of Reclamation funded the gauge.
“There’s concern about monitoring the flows out of the burn scar,” Kugel said. “So we wanted to be able to help out.”
Esther Godson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said projects are planned for this year that focus on restoration in the Hermosa Creek area. She said the Forest Service will continue repairing trails and restoring vegetation.
“We are planning to continue work to the Cutthroat Trail,” she said. “We continue to plan for planting willows in the Hermosa drainage as well as weed and invasive control in the 416 burn area.”