Crews keep wildfire near New Castle to less than 5 acres; unattended campfire suspected
In a few harrowing hours Sunday afternoon, fire and law enforcement officials scrambled to warn residents of flash flooding in the area of the Lake Christine Fire burn scar, the biggest safety issue in the year since the wildfire.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said late Sunday night that this was by far the most significant flooding since the fire, which broke out in July 2018 and burned more than 12,500 acres on Basalt Mountain.
“This is the biggest so far, but there is potential to be much worse than this was,” Thompson said. “Nobody was hurt, and no houses were swept away so that’s always good.”
He said crews were still assessing the damage late Sunday night and will be out Monday morning checking on houses along Pinon and Cedar roads, which are just above Basalt, for structural damage. That is where the initial 911 calls started to come in around 5:30 p.m.
Approximately 30 homes have been impacted, but “no loss of property has been reported, however, there is mud around homes,” according to a news release Sunday night from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
The Fryingpan Road was closed for roughly three hours and opened just before 9 p.m. Thompson said there were at least seven locations where mud or debris went over the road and into the river. Pinon and Cedar roads reopened about 12:30 a.m. Monday, according to the Eagle County Public Safety Information Officers.
A heavy rainstorm that moved in around 5 p.m. Sunday sent mud, rocks, trees and other debris down into the Fryingpan Valley and into the Fryingpan River. The heavy rains caused mudslides that blocked the road about 1.5 miles upriver from Basalt, trapping at least a half-dozen cars.
“This one we didn’t get much advance notification,” said Thompson, who lives on the other side of Basalt Mountain and said it wasn’t raining at all at his house. “It was very isolated and the storm sat still and didn’t move fast.”
Meteorologist Kris Sanders with the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction said the storm dropped about seven-tenths of an inch of rain in the first half hour. By the evening, 1.5 inches of rain had fallen in the area.
“It was really centered on the southern one-third of the scar area in the really steep part,” he said Sunday night.
Thompson said they are working with the National Weather Service to put rain gauges on the mountain. In the year since the fire, officials have had planning and training meetings on what to do if there was flooding in the scar area. Some of the Pitkin County alerts that were sent out were already set up and sent as needed.
Residents on Pinon and Cedar roads above Basalt were told to evacuate or seek higher ground as “significant water flows” were reported in the area by law enforcement on scene in the first hour of the storm. A Basalt resident at the scene who asked not to be identified said those roads were covered with debris, including tree trunks and large rocks.
A video from another Basalt resident sent to The Aspen Times showed the road leading to the Basalt shooting range, which is where the wildfire originated, washed out and water rushing along the side and in the middle of the road.
The Frying Pan Road reopened about 8:55 p.m., but was only for people coming down the valley. Traffic is being limited going up the road until crews can assess damage and look for any safety issues, Thompson said.
The first alert came about 5:30 p.m. warning of “active flooding in the Lake Christine Burn Area.” From there, the updates kept coming, including an evacuation notice for those on Pinon and Cedar roads, and told residents to “shelter-in-place or seek higher ground.”
Thompson said it is critical for residents in the area to sign up for the alert system as that is where the information will continue to come from.
“Crews are working to clear debris and reach trapped persons,” officials said in an alert issued at 6:30 p.m.
An Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy on scene blocking the road just outside of Basalt said there were reports of numerous slides on the road. A front-end loader was sent up the road with law enforcement at about 7 p.m. to clear debris. Crews also went further up the road to see if there were people at Ruedi Reservoir who might be stuck.
The National Weather Service issued the first flash flood warning at 5:45 p.m. for areas including Basalt and El Jebel, and it was extended twice into the evening and was set to expire at 11:45 p.m. Sunday.
Thompson said as part of their past training, an evacuation center was set up at the Eagle County community center at Crown Mountain Park as a precaution.
On Aug. 4, 2018, a flash flood just a month after the wildfire started sent mud, rock and ash into the area near Ace Lane’s property just off Highway 82 across from the Whole Foods. It threatened a barn that included affordable-housing residences, pumped tons of silt into a pond stocked with bass and blue gill and wiped out the majority of 8 miles of mountain-biking trail that included 2,300 feet of boardwalk features.
Thompson said Sunday in all about 50 people from agencies up and down the Roaring Fork Valley responded to the latest incident.
“This storm was so dynamic at the beginning, we had to kind of keep reacting,” Thompson said.
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