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‘We freak out every time a raindrop falls’

Residents look for answers to debris flows, which could last years

HERMOSA – It took about 20 minutes to forever change the lives of residents in Pines Townhomes.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m. July 24, rain hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of mud and debris toward homes on the north end of the Animas Valley, about 12 miles north of Durango along U.S. Highway 550.

Within 15 to 20 minutes, debris flows caused extensive damage to property and completely altered the topographic makeup of the area. And now, it’s a problem that will likely last years.

“Twenty minutes, that’s all it took,” said Larry Bareis, who lives in Pines Townhomes. “This is something we’ll be battling for quite some time.”

Soils that have been burned in a wildfire can no longer absorb moisture, so when it rains, there’s a high risk of flash flooding.

These fears materialized last month with several flooding events north of Durango from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Bruce Hamer, part owner of Hamer & Sons Construction, uses an excavator Monday to remove mud from next to the home of Marge and Gene Vanderbur. The Vanderburs’ home in Pine Townhomes was hit by debris flows July 17 and 24, filling the home with about 4 feet of mud and water.

La Plata County commissioners toured the damage Monday at Pines Townhomes as residents there continue to pick up the pieces from the dangerous floods nearly a month ago.

Bill Vanderbur said the floods came right into his parents’ home that they’ve owned since 1997, filling up the place with mud. Excavation crews continue to remove mud and fortify the home against future flooding.

“There was literally a raging river through here,” Vanderbur said.

But it’s not clear where to go from here, Bareis said. The risk of flooding is constant, and it would be incredibly expensive to attempt to mitigate a problem that doesn’t have any clear answers.

“The question everyone wants answered, we can’t answer,” he said. “Now, we freak out every time a raindrop falls.”

The downstairs bathroom of the home of Marge and Gene Vanderbur was filled with about 4 feet of water and mud after a July 24 debris flow. On Monday, about 18 inches of mud remained in the room.

Bareis said the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad contracted crews to clear drainage in the neighborhood that was practically destroyed in the floods in case more debris flows come down.

The railroad is also doing work above the neighborhood on a section of its tracks that was damaged, possibly installing culverts and small dams to mitigate the impact of debris flows.

Neighbors in Pines Townhomes pooled money to clear its main road and clear up other damage around the community. But those funds have all been used up, Bareis said.

“We’re getting to a point where we’ve done all we can,” he said. “We can’t do anymore. We need help.”

But help is getting hard to come by. There are certain limitations and complications with insurance and federal agencies, and local and state agencies say there’s a high risk of lawsuits when dealing with flood issues.

“The threat of lawsuits is hanging on everyone’s mind,” said Butch Knowlton, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

Butch Knowlton, center, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, talks with Pine Townhomes residents and county commissioners on Monday during a tour of the area devastated by flooding July 24.

Melvin Smith, who has lived in a private residence adjacent to Pines Townhomes since 2000, had two cars totaled in the floods, and the power knocked out to his house. Crews are unable to restore power until debris is cleared from the property.

“We’ve been eating out a lot,” Smith joked. “At this point, I might be a poster boy for disasters.”

Neighbors expressed concern Monday that even if they are able to clean up the mess from July’s flooding, all that work might be wiped away with the next debris flow.

“Every time it rains, we’re going to have to deal with these issues again,” said Jim Engelken.

Bareis added: “How do you engineer for what could possibly come down? We have a lot of people who are very, very stressed ... and we have a very long road ahead of us.”


An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name of the townhomes toured Monday by La Plata County commissioners.

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