Mudslides new threat after fires

Dousing the flames of the Pine Ridge fire was only half the battle, officials said Saturday.

Officials with the Grand Junction office of the Bureau of Land Management now are watching the fire-scorched land behind the Bookcliffs for the next big threat: the possibility of a mudslide down Jackson Canyon toward the Colorado River the Union Pacific railroad.

The next step is to try to replace some of the vegetation that was lost in the blaze, Catherine Robertson, Grand Junction Field Office manager, told U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., in a briefing at the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit at Grand Junction Regional Airport.

Heavy rains such as those that soaked Grand Junction soon after the briefing are exactly the problem that officials hope to forestall, Robertson said.

Jackson Canyon, which forms an intermittent stream that runs off the Bookcliffs into De Beque Canyon, could vault to the fore of problems should a storm drive a mudslide down toward the river, Robertson said.

The stream out of Jackson Canyon is frequently dry, but it has flowed heavy enough to require a railroad trestle at its mouth, Robertson said.

A significant mudslide down the stream could force closure of the railroad for the second time in a month, the first being for the fire.

“We don’t normally shut down a transcontinental railroad,” Robertson said, noting she’s not eager to do so again.

Rain on Saturday was a mixed blessing for firefighters, dispatcher Dea Funka said, noting it was “pretty widespread,” causing some small mudslides that blocked roads and forced some firefighting crews to spend the night in the backcountry.

The next step in dealing with the Pine Ridge Fire is to get seed into steep-walled Jackson Canyon, with the hope of getting enough growth to discourage a mudslide, Robertson said.

That could be difficult, Tipton noted, because the heat of the fire could have sterilized the soil, slowing recovery of the scorched lands.

It also could be expensive, Robertson said.

Rehabilitation costs for the fire won’t be as large as the costs to suppress it, “but will be pretty darned close to it,” Robertson said.

Fighting the 14,000-acre Pine Ridge Fire cost $3.2 million. The blase started June 27 and was contained July 4.

Congress should be preparing to deal with the costs of fire suppression now, even though the national pool of firefighting funds has yet to be strained by blazes in Colorado and relatively few other states, Robertson said.

States such as California will soon start seeing fires as well, Tipton said, likely driving national costs higher.


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