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Homeowners Who Avoid Wildfire Damage Can Find Themselves In New Flood Zone

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Major wildfires have burned through the Western U.S. in 2020, breaking records for their scale and damage. Even after firefighters calm the immediate effects, those who live nearby face a serious increase in the threat of flooding.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Major wildfires have burned through the Western us. This year. Fires can have immediate effects on air quality and nearby homes, but now people are coming to grips with the lingering danger of wildfires. Long after the flames are gone today, we continue our in-depth look at where water and fire intersect in the West Aspen public radios, Alex Hagar reports that people who live near burn scars can find themselves in a brand new flood zone.

Speaker 2: 00:31 There's a Creek running through Sue Levin's backyard about 20 feet away from the house she lives alone and says the running water makes for good company

Speaker 3: 00:40 Corny. As it sounds, I consider the Creek, my friend, and live with it in a really lovely way every day. And it's very relaxing

Speaker 2: 00:48 In the waning days of summer, that Creek is just a low gentle babble, slowly making its way into the nearby Colorado river. But Lavin has seen it get much higher and much louder. During peak runoff.

Speaker 3: 01:00 You can't have a conversation anywhere near that Creek. You really have to be. I belong to two book clubs and I could never have the meetings at my house because nobody would understand each other.

Speaker 2: 01:11 Now there's a serious threat that the Creek could swell with water and debris at levels she's never seen before levels that could seriously damage her property. Levin's house is in no name, Colorado, just a Stone's throw away from the furthest reaches of the grizzly Creek fire, which burned more than 30,000 acres. And although the fire is almost entirely contained, now it'll have lingering effects for years to come. And one of those is the serious threat of flooding.

Speaker 4: 01:37 It's not a, maybe it's a, it is an absolute going to happen.

Speaker 2: 01:41 That is Carol, a carious who heads up a Colorado based nonprofit that helps communities respond to big fires. She says, severity of flooding in no name is hard to predict without a crystal ball, but she does know there will be flooding here and near burned areas across the West. The reason for that fire burns up vegetation and soil that usually hold water,

Speaker 4: 02:03 Basically soil and rocks will age in a high intensity fire like the equivalent of a thousand years worth of aging from just sun, wind rain and ice.

Speaker 2: 02:16 Then when it does rain, even just a little bit, that soil is charred and the water can't sink in

Speaker 4: 02:22 The one-year storm does behave like a 10 year or greater event. And the 10 year storm behaves like a hundred to maybe 500 years.

Speaker 2: 02:34 And this isn't just clear rainwater that rushes downhill it carrier says it'll pick up all kinds of dirt and brush and rocks along the way. So a bad rainstorm could send a slurry of muddy debris speeding down a Creek bed that just can't handle it.

Speaker 4: 02:49 Sometimes it's moving rocks that are the size of a Volkswagen. So these are boulders not rocks. And when something, the size of a Volkswagen hits the side of your house, it is significantly

Speaker 5: 03:00 Damaging.

Speaker 2: 03:01 Debris can also plug up culverts or narrow windy parts of the Creek and lead to pooling and flooding near homes. So in no name, there's a team from the natural resources, conservation service picking out spots to put sandbags and rock walls to help it handle increased flow. One summer afternoon, Stephen Joann was leading one of those teams and serving the Creek right behind people's houses and backyards.

Speaker 3: 03:23 As we move up and down this Creek, we're looking at where the bends are, where the deposition is, uh, where re water is moving efficiently, where it might be pooling. Cause that might be a place where things could gather.

Speaker 2: 03:35 Jonathan says the no-name Creek bed is actually pretty deep and could handle more water, but they're still preparing for that worst case scenario.

Speaker 3: 03:42 We'll do some changes of, uh, of the infrastructure a little bit, just to make sure that if something does get clogged, that it has a path of least resistance to go, that doesn't go into somebody's house.

Speaker 2: 03:54 One of the houses that will likely need some protection is Sue Lavons. She's heard all the recommendations and is preparing for the worst, whether that be a one-time evacuation or floods, that gets so dangerous. They mean leaving no name for good.

Speaker 3: 04:07 If things get bad enough, I will have to adjust my life. I will find that heartbreaking and even thinking about it. It's heartbreaking, but I'm not a fool. I will prepare for such an instance. And if I have to take it, I will take it.

Speaker 2: 04:23 No name hasn't seen a heavy rain or snow since the fire, but Lavin has already started cutting back the brush around her property for the day. It does come. I'm Alex Hagar in no name, Colorado.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.