Colorado blazes fuel forest restoration efforts

Front Range communities work to protect their water supply from post-fire soil erosion

  • Plane drops fire retardant onto Bobcat Gulch fire

    Sherri Barber/The Coloradoan
 

CEDAR PARK, Colo. - Rick Shuri dodged a bullet in mid-June when the 10,600-acre Bobcat Gulch fire missed his home by 10 feet. But he'd better watch out for the ricochet.

Federal officials recently warned Shuri and other residents in the fire area that heavy summer rain could still take out their homes.

"If we get more than three inches of rain in 24 hours, anything we do up there will be gone," Todd Boldt of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service told Shuri after a community meeting in Cedar Park.

The reason is something called hydrophobic soils. When the Bobcat Gulch and Hi Meadow fires torched more than 20,000 acres of dense ponderosa pine forests, they also altered the composition of the soils, making them impervious to moisture. Steep slopes have now become superhighways for flash floods.

"Go out to your yard with a water bottle and dump water onto the land in the burnt area. The water will just bead right off," Boldt said.

Private landowners like Shuri aren't the only ones concerned about rain. Not only could a flood damage or sweep away houses in its path, it could also dump thousands of cubic feet of sediment into the irrigation ditches and watersheds of Front Range cities, degrading water quality and possibly shutting down water service if it clogs up reservoirs and treatment plants. The cities of Denver, Loveland and Greeley have all voiced concerns about erosion.

So federal, state and local agencies have joined forces with private landowners to combat flooding and erosion. Like the cleanup crews working in Los Alamos, N.M. (HCN, 7/3/00: Los Alamos races against time), they're racing against rainfall, rushing to get bales of hay, seedlings and deadwood in place.

But the Front Range is a step ahead: Some Denver officials saw this coming, and they started to get ready. After the June fires, neighboring cities may follow Denver's lead, looking ahead to the fire next time.

Beyond the reservoirs

Denver's progressive stance toward fire-related erosion stems from bitter experience. In May 1996, a human-triggered fire raged through the Buffalo Creek area, destroying homes and vegetation on 11,900 acres. One and a half months after the fire, flash floods swept ash, buildings, trees and propane gas tanks into the Strontia Springs Reservoir, part of Denver's drinking-water supply. To extract trees and debris from the reservoir cost $900,000.

Since then, houses have been rebuilt, but erosion from the fire is still giving the Denver Water Board a headache.

"We know that one-third of the reservoir is filled with sediment from the floods," says Rocky Wiley, manager of general planning for the Denver Water Board. Wiley estimates it will cost about $8 million to remove the sediment and an additional $2 million annually for continued operations and maintenance.

So the water board, which serves 957,000 customers, no longer concerns itself only with its reservoirs. In 1999, the water board partnered with the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service to form the Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project. Its goal is to manage and monitor the 600,000 acres of forest in the area's most critical watersheds, most of which are considered fire-prone because of fire-suppression policies and hot, dry weather. Based on ecological assessments, the group may pursue noncommercial thinning, prescribed fires and reforestation to prevent future fires and flooding. It also plans to conduct seminars on creating defensible spaces around private homes.

"We didn't think a fire could do what it did to us," says Wiley of the Denver Water Board. "You really cannot prepare for what happened to Buffalo Creek, but now we are more aware and knowledgeable of what can happen."

Officials at the Denver Water Board say they felt more prepared for a potential flood this time around. When the Hi Meadow area started burning, the water board immediately filled Marston Reservoir, located in a developed section of southwest Denver. If debris from flooding damaged and shut down the Foothills Water Treatment Plant, the city wanted to have the Marston treatment plant ready to go.

But Denver will only work on a small part of the Front Range watersheds - neither the Hi Meadow area nor the Bobcat Gulch area is part of the 600,000 acres slated for treatment - so the region's water supply will remain vulnerable to the whims of nature for years to come. If torrential rain hits the Front Range this summer, says Petra Barnes of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, "we are looking at all the ash washing straight into the reservoirs."

Business as usual?

Two interagency teams scouted out the Hi Meadow and Bobcat Gulch areas in late June, and they both hope to begin mitigation work later this month with federal funds from the USDA's Emergency Watershed Protection Plan.

According to the plan, Congress will only pay up to 75 percent of the bill, leaving the remaining 25 percent to be picked up by counties, water districts and private landowners. If flooding occurs, the total value of damages to crops and water sources from the Bobcat Gulch fire could be as much as $15 million, says John Gauthiere, Greeley's manager of engineering and planning. To more and more cities in the shadow of the burnt areas, ecological restoration plans like Denver's are starting to make good economic sense.

"We've never had a fire of this intensity since I have been here, which is 21 years," says Gauthiere. "We are very interested in participating in any way possible, because the soil conditions will cause us grief for several years, if we don't take care of it."

While city officials work to protect the area's water supply, developers conduct business as usual in the forests. A new development may go forward in the vicinity of the Hi Meadow Fire, though developers say they have scaled down the number of dwellings they wish to build in the proposed Pinewood Village. Park County officials have not yet reviewed fire safety concerns.

Along the growing Front Range, people are still willing to ignore the danger of wildfire when they move into their dream homes in the woods. For some survivors of the Bobcat Gulch fire, the memories of their close call are already fading.

"Next weekend, I'll start cutting trees and fill in that gully," says Shuri, the 41-year-old Cedar Park resident, as he surveys his black, ashen yard. "It was really depressing when I first came back here. But if I live here long enough, everything will pop back up. I guess every once and a while you've got to cut your hair and get a new look. This is the new look."

Victoria Peglar is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colorado.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Todd Boldt, district conservationist of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fort Collins, Colo., 970/295-5650;
  • Rocky Wiley of the Denver Water Board, 303/628-6520;
  • Larimer County Wildfire Safety Coordinator, 970/498-7718.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Victoria Peglar

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