Flashes, floods and fires

Staff Writer

Photo compositions of Pagosa Country’s lightning storms perhaps best embody the storms — the above taken over a 10-minute period Tuesday night and the below taken the night of July 14. Along with the lightning came heavy rains, which resulted in localized flooding, including on the east side of Pagosa Springs Tuesday night.


Monsoonal storms moved into the area in force over the last week, with over almost 9,000 lightning strikes in one 84-hour window, leaving Pagosa Country to deal with the aftermath.

As of Wednesday, that aftermath included localized flooding from heavy rains and numerous fires caused by lightning.

Rain and lightning

Residents and visitors have been treated to several notable and picturesque lightning displays over the last week.

Pagosa Fire Protection District Wildland Coordinator John Gilbert reported that by Tuesday night there were almost 7,200 lightning strikes in 72 hours in the area of Archuleta County and portions of neighboring counties, with that number climbing to nearly 9,000 by Wednesday morning.

That number continued to climb with more lightning in the area Wednesday.

Those storms also brought periods of heavy rains that prompted the National Weather Service to issue flash flood watches and warnings and local officials to monitor the weather closely.

On Tuesday night (June 15), heavy rains raised the level of the river significantly — from 154 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 9:15 p.m. to 1,420 cfs measured at 10:30 p.m. By 3 p.m. Wednesday, flow levels had decreased to 291 cfs.

The heavy rains brought with it localized flooding as water and debris clogged culverts, including portions of downtown Pagosa Springs.

Archuleta County Director of Emergency Management Thad McKain offered thanks and complimented personnel from several agencies who worked throughout Tuesday night’s storm to ensure that people were safe both in town and in area campgrounds, and attempted to alleviate clogged culverts.

Among those agencies named by McKain were the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Town of Pagosa Springs, the Pagosa Springs Police Department, Upper San Juan Search and Rescue, the U.S. Forest Service, Archuleta County and La Plata Electric Association (namely Mike Alley).

McKain reported that the Red Cross was also activated during the storm in anticipation of anyone needing lodging due to flooding, though he did not know of anyone who had to use that service.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network reported precipitation levels ranging from seven-tenths of an inch to 1.28 inches around Pagosa Springs between July 10 and July 15.


With lightning comes another obvious danger — fires.

Area fire personnel — from the PFPD, Archuleta County and federal agencies — have been on the move over the last several days, responding to numerous reports of smoke following lightning storms.

Since crews were actively responding to smoke reports Wednesday, a count of the number of lightning-caused fires from the most recent storms was not available by press time.

As of Wednesday morning, most of the fires reported had been contained to either a single tree or to about one-tenth of an acre, according to Gilbert.

Because the moisture levels in live fuels has increased, fires are being contained to dead fuels, Gilbert explained, with the moisture level of dead fuels still critically low.

As of Wednesday morning, Christina Marquart, Archuleta County’s deputy director of emergency management, said county crews had responded to 10 smoke reports on the week, with that number not including smoke reports tended to by other agencies.

Over the 10-day period from July 4 to July 14, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center (DIFD) reported mobilizing firefighting responses to 68 wildfires on federal lands across southwestern Colorado. Two dozen of those fires occurred over the weekend of July 11, and all but one were determined to be caused by lightning.

The largest was the KV Fire in the area of First Fork and the Piedra River, which was contained at 10 acres; the rest were either contained at single trees or at less than one acre.

The DIFD also reported that a number of firefighting resources are on hand, including a team of smokejumpers from Idaho, the San Juan and Pike Hotshots and local San Juan National Forest crews. Responders also include local firefighting agencies, as well as helicopters from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Mesa Verde National Park. A Colorado state single-engine air tanker is working out of the tanker base at La Plata Field.

“A lot of these smoke reports are coming from the public, which is very helpful,” said Justin Moore, DIFD assistant manager.

To report a fire on federal lands, please call DIFD at 385-1324. The Center is open 24/7 during fire season.

To report fires on private land, call Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at 731-2160 or, in the event of an emergency, 911.

A brief reprieve?

While today’s (Thursday) forecast shows a 20-percent chance of thunderstorms, with that chance for thunderstorms coming between mostly between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., the following days show potential to be sunny and mostly moisture-free.

According to a synopsis released by the National Weather Service Wednesday morning, “A drier northwest flow will set up for Thursday and Friday with high pressure building in for the weekend into next week. This will lead to mostly sunny skies and near normal temperatures, rising to above normal levels by this weekend into next week. Some lingering moisture will allow storms to develop over the higher terrain each afternoon.”

More specifically, as of Wednesday afternoon, Friday’s forecast was most sunny with a high near 83. Saturday looks to be similar with a high near 84.

Sunday’s forecast changes to sunny skies, with the temperature set to climb one degree for a high near 85, and Monday shows a high near 86.

Tuesday, however, the chance of showers and thunderstorms returns, with a high near 87.