The 416 Fire, which broke out 10 miles north of Durango and burned over 55,000 acres impacted Fort Lewis College in numerous ways.
The wildfire broke out on June 1 and subsequently burned over two months, leaving hundreds of people evacuated .
However the trouble didn’t stop when the fire was fully contained. The flooding that came after the fire is the most concerning, said Jon Harvey, professor of geosciences.
“I think of the flooding and the mudslides and debris flow as a greater hazard than the fire itself,” he said.
When fire burns the vegetation completely, the hillside becomes unstable because there are no longer plants to prevent erosion, Harvey said.
When rain came towards the end of the fire, there were no roots to help stop the water from flowing down the hillside, causing severe flood damage to the area, Harvey said.
In the places where the roots are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to, the water can run free, picking up debris and other material as it makes its way through the burn area, he said.
Signs of Trouble
A dry winter led to perfect conditions for a wildfire, said Kim Hannula, professor of geosciences.
It was dry in the months of May and June and the little snow that was there melted early, Hannula said.
The multiple fires that ignited in Southwest Colorado before the 416 Fire were signs that the fire season was starting, Hannula said.
The Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 is comparable to the 416 Fire because they both broke out after dry winters, Hannula said. During the years of both fires, the region was in a drought which caused the vegetation to by more dry, she said.
Although school was out of session for the summer, there were still some professors on campus working in relation with the fire.
“The 416 Fire presented a lot of interesting research opportunities for students and faculty alike,” said Mickey Campbell, a geosciences professor.
Campbell created an evacuation map for the fire officials to distribute to the public, he said.
Officials wanted a location where people could go get accurate information, so when Campbell came to the fire officials team asking how he could help, they were more than willing to allow him to, said Campbell.
“When I did notice and hear about the 416 Fire, right away I started thinking about what are the types of things I can do, and can this be a topic of research, and can I lend my skills to the county, or forest services, or to whoever to kind of help them out,” said Campbell.
One challenge Campbell faced while creating this map was keeping it updated day-to-day, he said. There were also instances where there were miscommunications between sources and information was posted hours before officials wanted the information publicly released, he said.
The Geographic Information System program will be looking at the maps Campbell created and will provide students the opportunity to use real world applications as part of their certification, he said.
There are two students who are working in the program as an independent study this semester who are using satellite images to construct maps and see the severity of the fire, Campbell said.
The geoscience department is also reconstructing curriculum to allow students opportunities for field trips that would provide hands on learning to see for themselves the impact of the fire, Harvey said.
Not only were many professors on campus involved with the 416 Fire, but the housing department was involved as well.
FLC is designated as an evacuation center, along with Escalante Middle School and Durango High School, as part of an agreement with the city, said Hilary Brenneman, assistant director for Conference Services
In events like the fire, FLC responds quickly preparing the Student Life Center and available housing as an evacuation center, Brenneman said.
On June 8, FLC started to prepare the Centennial Apartments to house firefighters. However the campus never ended up hosting the firefighters because they were stationed closer to the fire, Brenneman said.
The city of Durango closed its open spaces because of high fire danger, which included the Skysteps and other trails around campus.