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‘The only tool we have:’ CDOT turns to response strategies following multiple mudslides on I-70

Mudslides and debris flows are expected to continue for years to come with little to no possible mitigation solutions.
CDOT/Special to the Daily

Over the past few weeks, mudslides and flash flood warnings have prompted continual closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. A result of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, the steep slopes surrounding the interstate in the canyon have become increasingly susceptible to these large debris flows. And really, there’s not much anyone can do.

“We’ve all known that this risk of mudslides was here,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.

Immediately following the Grizzly Creek Fire, the Forest Service sent out a Burn Area Emergency Response team, also known as a BAER team, to assess damages and risk in the area as well as provide possible mitigation solutions.

What the team — which comprises specialists like hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, soil scientists and engineers — found was that many of the drainages in Glenwood Canyon burned severely. Couple that with the steepness of the slopes in the canyon, and it equals a higher risk of debris flow.

“The problem with the high-severity burn is that it cooks the soil,” Boyd said. “Soil normally is full of all kinds of living organisms, microorganisms, roots, seeds, those sorts of things, and if the fire burns really severely, it just kills all that.”

This severe burn also, according to Boyd, makes the soil more hydrophobic, so the water isn’t absorbed into the soil — “it just comes right off.”

“The other challenge with that is reseeding isn’t going to take very well in those highly, severely burned areas,” Boyd said. “Most of Grizzly Creek, if you go up in the burned area, is recovering naturally; grasses and forbs in the area where it was brush, those are all coming back.”

In some areas of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar where the burn was not as severe, grass and vegetation has started to regenerate naturally.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Without this regeneration, these mudslides will continue to occur with little to no vegetation to hold back the debris. This is particularly true as summer precipitation — which often dumps a lot of rain in a small area over a short period of time — continues to cause these debris flows.

“For the next few years, mudslides will be a problem,” Boyd said. “Over time, it gets better as the fire recovers more. Eventually, these severely burned areas will start coming back.”

So, what the Forest Service can, and will continue, to do, according to Boyd, is monitor the area and continue to look for opportunities to mitigate this risk.

Safety closures first

This map shows the burn severity across the Grizzly Creek Fire — 12% was marked as high severity burn, 43% as moderate, 33% was low and within the fire’s perimeter and 12% remained unburned.
White River National Forest/Special to the Daily

Instead, a lot of the mitigation efforts have been focused on these closures, which protect the safety of motorists on I-70.

“We’re talking about nature and nature’s process, that’s pretty tough to mitigate,” said Tracy Trulove, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson. “CDOT is always going to put safety at the top of the list for what we’re doing in the canyon.”

Earlier this year, CDOT completed several projects related to rock and debris flow in the canyon. Spending around $1.7 million in federal funding for emergency repairs, the department constructed a number of barriers intended to mitigate smaller sloughs of rock and debris and prevent scattering of smaller rocks into the roadway areas. This also included improvements and debris removal efforts along existing fences and barriers.

Even with these fences and precautions in place, it’s incredibly challenging to predict where the debris flows will occur.

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map that identified areas where there was a high likelihood for these larger debris flows. So far, this map had identified the three areas where debris flows have run onto the highway as areas with a 40% to 100% chance of doing so. However, even with these models, it’s impossible to predict these occurrences.

“There’s just so many areas in that canyon that have the potential for debris flow,” Trulove said.

Not only are the flows difficult to predict, but the state of the slopes have created debris flows that would be hard for the fences to catch.

“It’s a lot of mud and water and a very soupy mix that’s coming down,” Trulove said. “So even with those barriers in place, you’re still going to get a decent amount of material that comes through.”

So far, the mudslides that have made their way onto the interstate have had minimal impacts to the road. According to Trulove, there has only been minimal damage to things like drains and some damage to the guardrail, which was already in “desperate need.” Most of the costs have been associated with cleanup operations and resources.

According to Victoria Graham, a spokesperson from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, the governor requested funds for improving I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in September 2020.

“The state has requested up to $10 million in federal funding and been approved for approximately $2.5 million in emergency repair funding, which is 100% reimbursable, and $2.8 million in permanent repairs, which is 80% reimbursable,” Graham wrote. “Additional funding to protect local community water supplies and infrastructure was passed during this last legislative session working with those communities, the state Legislature and Department of Natural Resources.”

Matthew Inzeo, CDOT’s communication director, wrote in an email that the emergency repairs funding reimbursed “funds that were spent in the immediate response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year,” which includes the improvements mentioned above.

According to Trulove, CDOT isn’t aware of any new money earmarked for continued mitigation.

In terms of the long-term revegetation work, that will fall under federal funding for the Forest Service. “In a recent call with President Biden, Vice President Harris and key cabinet officials, Gov. Polis underscored the post-fire watershed and mudslide impacts,” Graham wrote.

Just this week, the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $238 million via Senate Bill 260 to address “critical statewide multimodal needs,” according to the press release. However, no improvements to I-70 in the canyon made the list. This is because, according to Trulove, transportation funding has been a challenge statewide, and there are many roadways, including Glenwood Canyon before the fire, that require rockfall mitigation and resources.

“The Grizzly Creek burn scar has added another layer of complexity,” she said, adding that it also doesn’t help that “this burn scar is right over one of the major arteries in Colorado.”

‘The only tool we have’

CDOT crews make progress cleaning up the lower eastbound decks of Interstate 70 on June 28, near mile marker 120 after a mudslide swept down the cliffs in Glenwood Canyon in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar the day before.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Instead of mitigating risks, CDOT has been concerned with merely responding to these risks as they occur. Just this week, two separate flash flood warnings prompted the closure of the interstate through the canyon.

CDOT starts preparing once it receives a flash flood watch from the National Weather Service, sending out maintenance teams on standby at several closure locations along the highway.

And then, once the watch is upgraded to a warning, “When we get a warning, we’re moving to a safety closure for the canyon in an effort to not have vehicles in there when a potential debris flow happens,” Trulove said.

Of this response, Trulove said, “Right now that is really the only tool we have.”

In Eagle County, the Sheriff’s office is also watching for these warnings and closures, prompting its own response on Cottonwood Pass.

Alternative routes

One common alternative route when Glenwood Canyon closes is Cottonwood Pass, which has seen its fair share of accidents and delays over the years.
Adrian Hughes/Daily File Photo

Over the past few years, Cottonwood Pass, a local and scenic roadway, has become inundated with traffic as closures in Glenwood Canyon continue to increase. The roadway has seen its fair share of crashes, including a truck rollover earlier this summer.

Matt Koch, who has been an Eagle County resident for 15 years, drives Cottonwood Pass every day in the summer to get to his job in Garfield County. However, over the past few years, closures on I-70 have led to an influx of “weekend warriors and tourists,” on the roadway, Koch said.

“Basically, as soon as the EC Alert goes out that there’s flash flood watch, I basically have to leave work and jump in my car and head home,” Koch said. “I’m in the very fortunate position that my boss is very understanding, and they let me leave. I think about the guy or gal who doesn’t have that luxury; they have to be there until the job is done.”

This can often lead to locals being stranded and unable to get home from work.

“Many locals work and live on both sides of Cottonwood Pass, making it a very important route for them to utilize when the Canyon is closed,” wrote John Harris, from the Eagle County Road and Bridge department, in an email. “We are concerned about the viability of the route and passenger safety with increased traffic. Cottonwood Pass is not designed to handle a large volume of traffic.”

This situation has led the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office — in partnership with the town of Gypsum and Eagle County Road and Bridge — to create an incident management plan. In the event that CDOT closes I-70, the Sheriff’s Office will send out deputies to both sides of the pass where they will manage traffic until Eagle County Road and Bridge arrives and takes over management. In managing traffic, those stationed are slowing traffic and making sure those commercial vehicles and others over 35-feet in length are not driving over the pass.

“Narrow sections, steep grades and sharp curves make it difficult to handle the traffic during closures without the boots-on-the-ground traffic control the county and its partners have been providing,” Harris wrote.

The incident plan also includes investing in a number of warning and educational signs for out-of-state visitors and drivers that take on the pass.

It’s worth noting that CDOT specifically asks motorists not to use Cottonwood Pass as well as Hagerman Pass, Eagle/Thomasville Road or other county or Forest Service roads in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties as a detour — although GPS routing systems will tell drivers to use those roads. Instead, the department recommends a northern alternate route using Colorado Highway 9, US Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 13. Really, there’s no good way around the closures.

Koch has noted these interventions and said that while they are helping — “I haven’t gotten stuck yet” — it’s not enough. In a letter to the Vail Daily, Koch referred to the road as “ill-prepared and ill-equipped.”

On the phone, Koch noted that guardrails and metering could help improve the drive and prevent accidents. “I don’t think that Cottonwood should be a viable alternative route. I think it should remain quiet and sleepy for the ranchers as a scenic byway,” he said.

According to Harris, the county has made some road surface improvements and has “been in discussions on different levels of improvements and costs associated with them.” However, at this time, there is no planned funding to help aid the project.

Koch has been reaching out to local and state representatives to try and raise some noise about the pass, and it’s need — as well as I-70’s need — for repairs and financial investments.

“I know it’s an astronomical amount of money, but when you start stacking that against all the commerce that gets stopped and the trickle down of having 70 closed for a day or a couple of hours. The supply chain just gets incredibly disrupted, and it’s not just Coloradans, it’s everywhere, it’s national,” he said. “I would encourage the other travelers to speak up and contact their representatives, and if we unify and make our voices heard, action will hopefully be taken.”

Sylvan Fire at 19% containment Monday morning; weather should help firefighters this week

The Sylvan Fire, which started June 20, in Eagle County has reached 19% containment and remains at 3,775 acres as of Monday morning, according to Incident Commander Dan Dallas.

“The weather this week should favor continued progress on fireline construction and preparation for future burning operations,” Dallas said in a Monday morning update. “A few new crews have arrived, and two additional hotshot crews are expected soon. This will help with completing some of the more difficult portions of the fireline.”

Crews have completed a direct fireline from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road. South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters are prepping the primary containment line along the moist, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road.

Crews are also working to contain the portion of the fire that moved south of the Mount Thomas Trail and ridgeline. Once they have completed this section, they will then clear an indirect fireline extending westward along Mount Thomas Trail as a contingency against southward spread of the fire in the steep, inaccessible portions that are unsafe for crews to work in.

Dallas said the favorable weather over the weekend and more moisture on the way is helping moderate the situation.

“Rain received in recent days will continue to keep fuels moist while moderating fire behavior. Fire spread will be limited and consisting mostly of smoldering and creeping,” Dallas said.

Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.

For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit www.ecemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

UPDATES: Sylvan Fire containment at 10% going into Sunday night

A mosaic pattern with patches of green and black as seen from the east side of Sylvan Lake on Friday.
Special to the Daily

David Boyd with the U.S. Forest Service said containment on the Sylvan Fire remains at 10 percent as crews headed into nightfall on Sunday.

The wildfire burning south of Eagle remains the largest priority fire in the Rocky Mountain region, with 361 personnel currently working the nearly 6-square mile blaze. Although still under investigation, the fire is suspected to have been caused by lightning.

Boyd said the size on the fire remains unchanged, at 3,775 acres, but it has moved slightly.

“Some of that is growth here and there, but some of that is the mapping catching up,” Boyd said. “Weather is helping us out, a lot.”

High humidity and spotted showers, combined with the occasional downpour, have assisted firefighters in recent days.

About a third of an inch of rain fell on the fire on Saturday and Sunday morning, bringing the accumulation in recent days to nearly an inch total.

The fireline, which travels from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road, represents the first bit of containment from crews.

“Ten percent of the line is where we want it to be,” Boyd said. “The weather has moderated the behavior of the fire, which has allowed us to make a lot of progress, continuing to build lines and strengthen them. We’ve got a few more days of weather like this, and that will be very helpful.”

Boyd said the overhead views of the fire show areas of smoldering, with heavy smoke, indicating that if the humidity drops again, and the winds pick up, the fire will become more active.

And some of the fires that may be taking place once the rain stops might be conducted by the crews on scene, as well, in an effort to improve fire lines, Boyd said.

“There’s some areas where we’re going to either light some areas ourselves, when the conditions are right, and have that burn to the firelines, or allow the fire to get to places where we can effectively hold it,” Boyd said. “Even though weather has been really moderate, we still have some days coming, in the coming days, where will see more fire activity.”

The wet weather can be good and bad for firefighters, as the water helps put down the blaze and helps crews build fire lines.

“But the wet, slippery conditions make the work more difficult and increase safety concerns for driving and foot travel,” said Dan Dallas, the incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Management Team assigned to the blaze. “Fortunately, no serious injuries have occurred thus far on the incident, and we continue to make public and firefighter safety our highest priority.”

During a Friday evening Facebook community meeting, Rob Powell, the operations section chief for the fire, noted that the resources at risk — an Xcel Energy transmission line and the Eagle and Gypsum watersheds — earned the priority designation.

The Sylvan Fire has split into two main branches. Crews are attacking one branch along the Eagle Thomasville Road, which will be the primary fire line.

“We’re working really hard on that 400 road and getting that dug in, so that the fire doesn’t push harder and higher when it dries out,” said Michelle Kelly a public information officer working the fire.

Kelly called the Sylvan Fire a “mosaic fire” with patches of green and black throughout the forest — and those green spots could become troublesome in the coming days when it is expected to dry out.

She said fire officials are always cautious about putting containment line on a map, wanting to be absolutely certain that an ember can’t cross a fire line when temperatures dry out or wind kicks up — which is what happened when the fire had its big blowup earlier in the week.

“We really want to make sure that we’re cold trailing, and that there’s not something like that could cross the road,” she said.

Metro Denver counties to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions with move to Level Clear this weekend

A lone traveler wears a face covering while hurrying through a near-empty check-in counter area in the main terminal of Denver International Airport on Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

Much of metro Denver will see all remaining county-level COVID-19 public health restrictions lifted this weekend, although people still will be required to wear masks in specific indoor settings as the statewide order remains in place at least until next month.

Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Broomfield counties confirmed Tuesday they will move from Level Blue to a new phase called Level Clear on Sunday.

Denver’s public health agency stopped short of committing to the move to Level Clear, but said the city anticipates “aligning” with neighboring counties.

Once the metro counties move to Level Clear, restaurants, bars, offices and other indoor settings can operate at 100% capacity with no additional requirements, according to the Tri-County Health Department’s public health order.

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment “is working with regional and state partners to evaluate the potential restrictions after the expirations of our current public health order,” spokesperson Clarissa Boggs-Blake said in an email Tuesday. “We anticipate aligning with other neighboring jurisdictions as well as adopting by reference any remaining state public health order requirements.”

For more on this story, go to denverpost.com.

Boebert’s first town hall gets off to a rough start

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., center, and other Republicans wait during a break as the House and Senate convene to count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

Rep. Lauren Boebert’s first teleconference town hall got off to a rough start Thursday night when two early callers accused her of treason and affiliating with white supremacists.

Boebert, R-Colo.,a Rifle restaurant owner who won election to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District in November, talked with constituents for nearly one hour.

One initial caller asked her why she was photographed in the past with people allegedly flashing white supremacy symbols. That was a reference to a photo of Boebert posing with members of the American Patriots III% and Bikers for Trump at a Second Amendment rally in Denver in December 2019.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry you’ve been deceived by conspiracy theories,” Boebert responded.

A few minutes later, a woman identified as Nicole from Pueblo asked, “When you are tried for treason, which prison do you want to do your time in?”

Boebert and the moderator quickly dismissed the question and moved on to the next person. For the remainder of the event, Boebert was mostly thrown softball questions from people who expressed support for her.

Boebert sent a tweet at 2:52 p.m. Thursday announcing the town hall. Interested people were directed to register at a website. Registration was closed at 4:15 p.m., three hours before the event.

Mark from Montrose thanked Boebert for “everything she has done” for the Western Slope and 3rd District. He said she is standing up for Constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, which he said is constantly under attack.

“For those who oppose you and those who criticize you on this town hall meeting, it’s going to do nothing but rally the base and we are going to come out in full force with lots of money to support you, to re-elect you,” the caller said.

Boebert thanked him and called his comments “sweet.”

“I want to let you to know I am doing everything I can to promote the things that matter most to Americans right now,” Boebert said. “We need to open our economy. We need to get businesses open. We need to have our schools open. These are all things that are very important. I think we’re all kind of over the politics of personal destruction.”

Sarah from Monte Vista said she had intended to ask the Congresswoman what has been the most frustrating aspect of her job, but that became apparent listening to the criticism of some callers. “I’m so sorry you have to deal with those things,” the woman said. She asked what Boebert would say to her critics.

“I think my message would be that I wake up every morning fighting for freedom and prosperity,” Boebert said. “I want every American to have every opportunity and more than I had. I want our children to grow up in a free nation. I don’t want socialism for our children. I don’t want government to step in and say they know best and they know how to run our lives better than we do. The American people are smart and sometimes it feels like government doesn’t trust its people, and so I’m hear to be that voice. I’m not a politician.”

Boebert continued to say she is motivated to help the people of the district and that “attacks” won’t intimidate her.

“Please note that the negativity, the attacks, it’s not deterring me,” Boebert said. “I pray for those who are in opposition. It’s OK, and I understand it’s not unique to me and I hope you all understand that as well.

“A lot of these attacks that you’re seeing, they’re cookie cutter and they’re occurring across the nation, unfortunately to good people who are in this for the right reasons, to serve,” Boebert continued. “I’m not letting that distract me from the work I was sent here to do.”

“Please note that the negativity, the attacks, it’s not deterring me. I pray for those who are in opposition.” — Rep. Lauren Boebert

In addition to taking audience comments and questions, Boebert’s team asked the telephone audience to answer poll questions and she outlined her legislative agenda.

Boebert said she is excited to serve on the House Natural Resources Committee.

“I’ll pursue policies that increase access and ensure multiple-use for sportsmen and other public land enthusiasts,” she said. “I’ll allow for responsible energy production while protecting the environment, reduce our dependency on rare earth and critical minerals from China where we know that child and slave labor is often used, empower tribes, increase storage and protect precious water supplies and promote job creation while removing unnecessary regulations and red tape.”

She also serves on the Budget Committee, where she will work to reduce the national debt.

“America is nearly $28 trillion in debt,” she said. “The federal government doesn’t have a revenue problem. The federal government has a spending problem. It is far past time that Congress gets its fiscal house in order, prioritizes the values of the American people and puts an end to Washington’s wasteful spending.”

The town hall ended with Boebert dismissing the need for National Guard protection and fencing around the U.S. Capitol despite the mob riot that resulted in five people dying on Jan. 5.

“I had the honor of meeting with a large group of the National Guard today and just speaking with them and letting them know how valued they are, but also how their not exactly needed here at this time,” Boebert said.

She then questioned why a wall remains around the Capitol when the wall at the United States border with Mexico hasn’t been completed. She recently visited the border wall and saw eight-foot gaps and missing sections of fence because “construction has been halted, equipment is lying on the ground to rot.”

“However, some people in Washington, D.C., felt threatened and immediately erected a very strong wall. It’s a great wall, it’s a beautiful wall. President Trump would have loved this wall,” Boebert said with a laugh. “It’s in the wrong location. We certainly don’t need that around the Capitol and I’ve actually been talking to my team about strategies to get that moved and I would love to keep you up to date on that, to see where we go with that because we have some fun strategies with this wall and where to take it.

“It is unfortunate to see,” she continued. “People guard what they care about and it’s very, very clear that those that are in power here care about themselves and President Trump wanted to guard our nations border because he cares about the American people. You protect what you value and bringing in 25,000 National Guard, that’s a little unnecessary for a mostly virtual inauguration.”

“The wall is unnecessary and needs to be taken down from around our Capitol,” Boebert concluded.

scondon@aspentimes.com