Cameron Peak Fire now poses flooding threat to anxious Colorado mountain residents
Erica Michel's red Jeep Rubicon slowly slogs up Buckhorn Road, its tires churning through snow, mud and water from snowmelt and an overflowing Buckhorn Creek.
Rounding one of the narrow canyon's sharp bends where mirrors are placed to help drivers avoid head-on collisions, the Jeep creeps to where a traffic flagger holds a stop sign.
The beeping of heavy equipment breaks the silence of the otherwise quiet canyon.
The remote traffic holdup, coupled with crews just now installing large box culverts to a road ripped up by the 2013 flood that scoured the canyon, is a perplexing twist to the Fort Collins resident's trek to the family's cabins an hour west of the city.
Add to the mix hillsides and a creek bank littered with the torched remains of dead, standing and downed trees from last fall's Cameron Peak Fire and the red flags of impending disaster come spring snowmelt runoff are as obvious as the private property signs strung along the road.
The 112-day Cameron Peak Fire that wasn't fully contained until Dec. 2 left more than 200,000 acres of dead trees and unstable soil sterilized by the blaze ready to clog roads and creeks come spring, with little time to bandage the wound.
The willow-choked Buckhorn Creek cuts through the family property, its frozen edges already abnormally high, creeping within feet of a 101-year-old barn and swelling with each freeze-thaw cycle. It follows Buckhorn Road south out of the canyon where it imperils many more properties along its banks, some of which also have been impacted by the fire.
Few places in the fire's burn scare are in as much peril from potential flooding as the property in the Upper Buckhorn Canyon, according to the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management. Other areas in the greatest risk category of the county's post-fire risk assessment include Monument Gulch/Pingree Park, Laramie River Valley and Rustic/Glen Echo/Goodell Corner.
"I hear trees fall almost every time I'm up here and have had two fall within 5 feet of the cabin,'' Michel said on a recent visit to the property. "I'm afraid sometimes. I don't know if I want to stay up here at night because of the wind. Even though some of the trees around here are not damaged by the fire they could fall because the soil around them will erode and could smash me.''
And as spring approaches and the threat turns from fire to flooding, Larimer County is racing against time to keep that from happening.
Larimer County fire recovery projects prioritized
Three months is little time to plan the recovery effort of the largest wildfire in Colorado history. But with the recent snowstorm dumping 3 to 4 feet on the burn scar and repairs from the 2013 flood incomplete, the threat to life and property is real.
The prospect of the fire's blackened remains washing down into the creek looms large with snowmelt runoff and potential heavy rainstorms only months away.
The task of securing funding and coordinating recovery on public and private land is being spearheaded by Lori Hodges, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management.
Even before the fire was extinguished, the county began working with the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, water suppliers and the U.S. Forest Service on fire mitigation projects and the National Resources Conservation Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding.
The county hired a private consultant to establish a priority list of projects, the first of which will start as soon as crews can access the areas. A private contractor has been hired for debris removal.
"We have been already getting reports of erosion and flooding going across some roads and filling culverts,'' Hodges said. "You add 4 feet of snow and if it melts quickly it could get pretty bad.''
Hodges said the recovery protection priority is to mitigate risk to life, safety, water and other environmental impacts.
The first order is to remove hazardous trees that could block roads, threatening residents' ability to evacuate in case of flooding or other emergencies. At the same time, crews will work to remove debris in and near creeks and rivers and upgrade culverts to increase water flows. This will be done on public and private land.
"We will work as quickly as we can, but the fire ending when winter started made it hard to get in those areas to start projects,'' said Hodges, who added it will take years of mitigation work in the burn area to fully recover. "People will need to have safety plans in place in case we have emergency issues.''
Hodges hopes to have crews start by the beginning of April if weather allows. She said the county's cost-share of erosion and debris flow control is estimated at $9.2 million. Cameron Peak Fire suppression cost more than $134 million, an amount greater than all the other Colorado wildfire suppression efforts last year combined. The fire remains under investigation but is suspected to have been human-caused.
The Upper Buckhorn Canyon and surrounding neighborhoods, including Monument Gulch and Crystal Mountain, have the largest amount of area potentially impacted by debris flow, burn severity and risk to roads, according to the county's risk assessment.
They also were among the neighborhoods that suffered the most property loss in the fire.
Michel said her parents, Judy and Terry Jones, and other family members worked to mitigate fire risk when the Cameron Peak Fire started. Still, she said if not for firefighters digging fire lines around the property's four cabins and drawing water from Buckhorn Creek to supply sprinklers that soaked the buildings, the fire would have consumed the property her parents bought four years ago.
"I feel like we are blessed and someone watched over us because the fire came down the hillside close to the cabins,'' said Michel, whose family was evacuated twice during the fire. "The fire was feet away from a Mother Mary statue. It’s magical the firemen came to save it. And now we transition to another fear that we may lose it again.''
The 2012 High Park Fire spared the property, burning just up the mountain, but the 2013 flood damaged some of the property. That makes Michel uneasy about what lies ahead come the spring runoff.
"When the dead and burned trees start to fall and the ash, debris and loose soil come down, they will block up all the channels in the creek in all the watersheds that come down here,'' she said. "There's no place else for it to go.''
She said the family has prepared the property as best it can and she has been encouraging neighbors to do the same. She hopes the U.S. Forest Service, on which the vast majority of the Cameron Peak Fire burned, does the same on its nearby property to give the peaceful canyon a chance at averting yet another disaster.
"Many people up here don't have the equipment to do it ourselves,'' she said. "We will need the government's support because they have the means and most of it is on their land. My actions will hurt it or defend it and their actions will hurt it or defend it. If we can work together and open the lines of communication, whether a fire or flood does come we will have done the work to give us the best chance.''
Ways to help and get help
Here are ways for property owners impacted by the Cameron Peak Fire to get help and community members to help with the recovery effort.
Social media: For up-to-date information on activities and ways to get involved or stay informed, follow the Larimer Recovers accounts on Facebook at facebook.com/LarimerRecovers and Twitter at twitter.com/LarimerRecovers.
Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt.