CUCHARAS PRE-FIRE WATERSHED ASSESSMENT

In mid-June, 2013, a wildfire began near the saddle between East and West Spanish Peaks. Within three weeks, due to dry conditions and high winds, the East Peak Fire grew to about 14,000 acres on the northern and northeastern flanks of East Spanish Peak before being contained. (Refer to aerial photograph.) Huerfano County resources were quickly strained to the breaking point. State resources were committed and a Federal Type II team soon took command of the response. While there was no loss of life, several structures were lost. The incident served as a wake-up call for the rest of the County, particularly for the Cucharas River basin farther to the west. There, large stands of dead timber (the result of insect infestation and disease) were the setting for a disaster waiting to happen.
Sobered by the East Peak fire, the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District realized that another large wildfire in the upper Cucharas basin could wreak havoc with downstream water facilities, including those of all the municipal providers in the county. In September, 2013, the District adopted a Resolution acknowledging that intense mitigation strategies were needed to protect water resources and facilities on the Cucharas River. The District made the commitment to be the “lead agency and fiscal agent for a Pre-Fire Watershed Assessment for the Cucharas Basin.” After obtaining funding, the District retained JW Associates, a consulting firm that had successfully conducted over twenty similar pre-fire assessments in Colorado and Wyoming.
The resulting year-long assessment of an area comprising 340,000 acres took these complex steps:

  •  Identified the locations of hazardous fire fuels, i.e. the most critical potential wildfire areas in the basin;

  •  Specified and prioritized fuel treatments needed to protect water infrastructure (reservoirs, intakes, water transportation and distribution structures, and other facilities) from high-severity wildfires;

  • Determined the flooding, debris and sediment yields that could be caused by those wildfires;

  • Specified pre-fire mitigation strategies and measures (sediment check structures, contour log felling, sediment catchment basins, constructed alluvial fans, and other treatments designed to dissipate flood energy)

  • Prioritized their locations to protect municipal water diversion, storage, transportation, and distribution facilities from wildfire and its consequences.

Aided by significant stakeholder input, two reports were produced by this study:

The studies, completed at a cost of approximately $100,000, were funded by roughly equal contributions from the Colorado Water Conservation Board Watershed Restoration Program and a group of local governments: Huerfano County Water Conservancy District, Huerfano Board of County Commissioners, La Veta Fire Protection District, Huerfano County Fire Protection District, Cucharas Sanitation and Water District, Upper Huerfano Fire Protection District, City of Walsenburg, and the Town of La Veta.

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