Gullywashers next worry as fire subsides
By Donna Daniels
Now that the Coal Seam Fire has apparently done its worst, residents now have another worry: mudslides.
Thousands of acres around Glenwood Springs have been denuded of vegetation and those red hillsides could spew walls of mud with the next heavy rainstorm.
A month after the Storm King Fire of 1994, a heavy rainfall caused a slide that deposited tons of mud across both lanes of Interstate 70 just south of Storm King Mountain, washing cars into the Colorado River. Fortunately, no one was killed.
In an effort to counteract the effect of the loss of vegetative cover on surrounding hillsides, a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team was called in to assess the damage caused by the Coal Seam Fire and develop a mitigation plan.
On Monday and Tuesday, the team of hydrologists, soil scientists, biologists, archaeologists and other resource specialists flew over the fire area to determine what needs to be done to arrest erosion.
Their goal, said a report from the fire information office, is “to reduce safety hazards, prevent unacceptable resource degradation and to help return watersheds to their pre-fire state.
“Erosion may lead to loss of wildlife habitat and native plant species and a decline in water quality. Flooding may result from the lack of adequate vegetative ground cover.”
Glenwood Springs’ steep slopes and loose soils will compound the damage caused by the fire, the report said.
Among the most pressing issues, said Dan Sokal of the Glenwood Springs field office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, local liaison to the BAER team, are potential debris flows on Storm King and Red mountains.
“Everywhere between Glenwood Springs and South Canyon is going to wash down,” Sokal said of Red Mountain and the south-facing slopes of Storm King.
The BAER team is also concerned about the cutthroat trout population at the Mitchell Creek Fish Hatchery.
Mitchell Creek contains one of the West Slope’s pure populations of native Colorado River cutthroat trout.
“Ash (from the fire) could increase the pH of the water and limit their ability to survive,” Sokal said of the fish.
Sedimentation and debris in the creek could impact the hatchery’s water quality.
Fishery managers will work with BAER team to ensure survival of this sensitive fish species.
Methods used in the past to forestall erosion include removing debris from creeks and rivers, and using straw wattles, contour logs, seeding and mulching, the report said.
Straw wattles are cylinders of compressed, weed-free straw placed on steep slopes where more than half of the vegetation has burned. Straw wattles and contour logs are placed parallel to each other across the slope to catch and hold soil and water.
Seeding with grasses provides temporary soil stabilization on severely burned areas, and also helps prevent the growth of noxious weeds. Mulching reduces the erosive action of raindrops hitting bare soil, the report said.
After examining the fire area, the BAER team will develop a plan to mitigate specific issues such as debris flows and soil erosion. The team will work with local BLM and U.S. Forest Service specialists to put the plan into action, Sokal said.
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