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Technology dilutes floods’ surprise factor

Greg Masse
Staff Writer

When every minute counts, an early warning of a flash flood could mean the difference between life and death.

With this in mind, the National Interagency Fire Center installed three high-tech weather devices near Glenwood Springs. They are designed to give extremely localized weather reports and transmit warnings when conditions warrant.

The self-contained, solar-powered meteorology nerve centers, called Remote Automated Weather Stations, or RAWS, were placed in areas prone to floods and debris flows. They provide extremely localized weather readings and can be programmed to set off alarms when a storm hits.

The new RAWS are located just uphill from the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery on Mitchell Creek, up the western side of Mitchell Creek Canyon and on a hillside in South Canyon. They join a permanently deployed RAWS located on Storm King Mountain, installed shortly after the 1994 wildfire. The newly-placed stations are called the Fish Hatchery RAWS, Mitchell Canyon RAWS and South Canyon RAWS.

The stations were set up last week and each is programmed and ready to warn those below of possibly dangerous weather conditions.

Each station measures precipitation by the hundredth of an inch; wind speed and direction; air, soil and fuel temperature; soil moisture and relative humidity. The stations even have an instrument to measure the intensity of the sun’s radiation.

Authorities are concerned about flooding and mudslides coming down from burned areas. Vegetation that formerly would have slowed water and debris was burned in the Coal Seam Fire and is now gone. Also, burned soil can become hydrophobic, which means it rejects moisture, so water and debris roll right over it.

To help slow those flows, crews laid erosion mats above the Fish Hatchery RAWS.

“If you have a really intense rainfall, the ground is only going to soak in so much. The rest of it is going to flow right down,” Forest Service hydrologist Andrea Holland-Sears said.

Holland-Sears said it took a month to plan the installations. The units were flown in by a helicopter last Thursday and Friday, then programmed from a laptop computer soon after arriving.

“They can be programmed to send an alert in case a certain amount of precipitation falls in a certain length of time,” Holland-Sears explained.

Station alarms will activate if they sense one-tenth of an inch of rain within 10 minutes.

It’s hard to say exactly how much rain might trigger a mudslide, Holland-Sears said, so while the alerts will be taken very seriously, they won’t be the only criteria to force an evacuation. Law enforcement officers will make visual checks of the area before anyone is told to leave their home.

The station “is another piece of information to use, but it’s not going to be the only information,” Holland-Sears said.

“We don’t want to do too many evacuations. If it’s coming down and it’s a gullywasher, they’re going to evacuate people,” she added.

To aid the portable stations, which generally remain in their locations for three years and are designed to tolerate weather extremes, including winds of more than 125 mph, the National Weather Service will issue localized warnings and reports.

“The National Weather Service has been trying to calibrate their Doppler so they have a better idea of what’s coming in,” she said. “They’re starting to patrol this area.”

U.S. Bureau of Land Management RAWS technician Denise Buske, based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, travels extensively throughout the West installing the stations. She has been in the Glenwood Springs area for about three weeks to help with the transportation and installation of the three new stations.

As a result of higher demands from this year’s mammoth wildfire season, NIFC recently ordered 19 more stations to install in the West, Buske said.

Each RAWS station downloads its information to a website hourly, but emergency personnel have access to weather readings taken every 10 minutes. They can call the station to receive reports, or the station will contact them, broadcasting information through the radio when a threshold is reached.

To access RAWS readings online, go to http://www.fs.fed.us/raws/, click on “Links,” then click on NWS National RAWS Data Server and scroll down to Colorado. The local RAWS will be renamed to South Canyon, Mitchell Canyon and Fish Hatchery, but on Monday they were still listed as BAER 12, BAER 13 and BAER 14.


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