Burn areas begin to rebound
Steady but light rain prevents severe flooding

A bright bloom stands in sharp contrast to the backdrop of a scorched tree in the Missionary Ridge Burn
Area. Local officials are saying that revegetation efforts, coupled with Mother Nature’s own natural reflexes,
have begun to rejuvenate the areas burned in last year’s fires./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

In the aftermath of last summer’s wildfires, national and local officials predicted a bleak future for the Durango area. Biblical levels of flooding combined with mudslides and ash and debris flows were expected to hit for years to come. It’s now been more than a year since the fires were successfully contained, and those prophecies have not come to pass. A great deal of manpower went into averting the disasters, but officials agree that luck has played the biggest hand.

Last summer, the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires scorched more than 70,000 acres, engulfed and destroyed 56 homes, and came within 5 miles of the Durango city limits. The fires also wiped the landscape clean, denuding it of any vegetation and creating an optimum situation for flooding. Last fall, the rains hit, and the floods followed, as drainages like Stevens and Shearer creeks funneled water, mud, ash and debris onto county roads and properties and into homes. The Animas Valley and the west side of Vallecito Reservoir became hotspots for flooding, and there was belief that they would be disaster areas for at least five years to come.

So far, this summer has defied that prediction. Last fall, La Plata County Engineer Rick Routh was on the front lines of the flood scene, working to keep county roads 250 and 501 clear of mud and debris and open to traffic. This summer, Routh has been far less preoccupied with flooding.

“The amount of road closures and road damage has been somewhat minimal,” he said, citing numerous reasons for the absence of disaster. Chief among these is that rainfall has been adequate but not excessive, according to Routh.

“The intensity of the rains hasn’t been to a level that we’ve seen before in Durango,” he said. “We’ve been lucky. Where it has been intense, it hasn’t been centered over the troublesome drainages.”

Routh added, “Instead of intense rains that erode all of the vegetation, the lighter rains have helped vegetation get established. There are already, brand new 6-foot aspens in the burn area.”

Routh also said that when bad luck has struck, county crews, headed up by Doyle Villers, director of maintenance, and Butch Knowlton, director of emergency preparedness, have responded quickly and precisely. “Our road crews have got it figured out,” he said. “They’re able to put the men and equipment in the locations that are most likely to receive mud and debris and get the roads open as soon as they can.”

Early warning systems, the substantial work conducted last fall to reseed, improve roads and enlarge culverts, and neighborhood awareness also have helped avert disaster, according to Routh.

“The residents of the county have been fantastic in terms of working with their neighbors to avert the flooding and in some cases accept that there will be property damage,” he said. “That’s been helpful for us in managing this crisis that will be with us for a long, long time.”

The San Juan National Forest also has been working since last fall to manage the crisis. Nearly 18,000 acres of the most severely scorched areas of Missionary Ridge were reseeded by air with native and established grasses. Log erosion barriers were erected, ground cover was spread, and larger culverts were installed – all in an attempt to slow erosion. Looking back, Kay Zillich, San Juan National Forest hydrologist, said these efforts have been somewhat successful.

“There are a lot of sprouts of aspen and oak, some of which are head high,” she said. “Plants like lupine and Oregon grape are coming on strong. All in all, we’ve got decent revegetation going.”

But more than the ambitious reseeding effort, Zillich credited nature’s resilience for the recovery of the burn area. “Some of the revegetation is what we applied from airplanes last fall,” she said. “Most of it is coming back on its own.”

An underpass was built along County Road 250 to help prevent accidents and road closures due to mud slides. So far this summer, road closures and road damage
because of flooding have been minimal, according to county engineer Rick Routh./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Citing an example of a remarkable comeback, Zillich said that a small yellow flower was discovered this spring in numerous locations but could not be identified by Forest Service botanists. Prior to reseeding, all of the seeds had been screened in an effort to prevent the spread of noxious weeds, but the yellow flower appeared to be one that slipped through the cracks. Eventually, it was determined that the flower is a fire-dependent native species called golden smoke.

“These seeds have been waiting 100 years for this kind of event to germinate,” Zillich said. “I’m really impressed by the resiliency of the natural ecosystem. Mother nature knows what to do.”

Zillich said that revegetation has played a part in the lack of flooding this summer. But like Routh, she said it is a small part, and that La Plata County has gotten lucky and dodged dangerous rains.

“The revegetation is part of why we haven’t seen the big floods, but most of it is that we haven’t seen the big rains,” she said. “The active cells that rain hard have been small, and we just haven’t gotten enough rain in one spot for it to be a problem.”

Zillich added that real progress in the realm of revegetation will take several years. She said that the duff layer, the several inches of decomposed leaf and pine needles covering forest floors, has been completely wiped out in many areas. The duff layer is the basis of forest vegetation, according to Zillich. “In numerous cases, we lost the entire duff layer to the fire,” she said. “It’ll take at least two years for that to return to normal.”

Still, both Zillich and Routh agree that the situation is a shining one compared to what may have happened. They also are holding their breath, hoping that the worst-case scenario does not strike in coming months.

“We’re real happy, but it could change tomorrow,” Routh said. “If the heavy rains that hit the Southwest county on Sunday had hit the Stevens Creek drainage, it could have done some serious damage. We’re very much at the mercy of Mother Nature. Our efforts would be for naught if we had even a five-year rain event.”

Routh acknowledged that moisture has been steady throughout the second half of this summer but noted that historically, the region’s biggest floods have hit during the fall months.

“Historically, September and October have had the largest rain events of any time of the year,” he said. “We’re still very exposed in the Missionary Ridge and Valley Fire areas.”

Zillich agreed, saying, “We’ve been lucky and we’re doing really well, but we’ve got at least another month before I’m going to relax.”






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