1 dead, 2 missing after flood sweeps through Poudre Canyon outside Fort Collins

A woman was killed and two people are still missing after rainfall over the Cameron Peak fire’s burn scar triggered a flash flood in the Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins on Tuesday.

The flooding destroyed at least five structures and damaged the roadway through the canyon, Larimer County sheriff’s officials said.

More flooding is possible later Wednesday, with the National Weather Service issuing a flash flood watch for the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fire burn areas from noon until 8 p.m. Slow-moving storms are expected to generate heavy rainfall that could lead to flash floods.

On Tuesday, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office first received reports of flooding in the canyon above Rustic around 6:05 p.m., the agency said. A mudslide swept over Black Hollow Road — about 35 miles up from Ted’s Place at the canyon’s mouth. — and sent “a large amount of debris into the canyon,” sheriff’s officials said in a news release.

Sheriff Justin Smith confirmed on his Facebook page overnight that authorities had located a body, later identified as an adult woman. He said officials did not recover the body Tuesday but would do so once it was safe to cross the Cache la Poudre River.

Divers will attempt to recover the woman’s body and a vehicle in the river Wednesday, officials said.

Two other adults remain missing, sheriff’s officials said. People with friends or family in the canyon who are overdue are asked to call the Joint Information Center at 970-980-2500.

Smith said a significant amount of debris washed across Colo. 14, blocking the road.

Search operations continue Wednesday, sheriff’s official said, with emergency crews on foot and flying drones. Personnel from Larimer County Search and Rescue, Larimer County
Dive Rescue, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado National Guard are active in the canyon, while Larimer County assessment teams were to begin surveying the damage.

The Colorado Department of Transportation first closed the road around 7 p.m. Tuesday as the canyon was evacuated, and it remains closed from County Road 62 and Pingree Road to Cameron Pass, a nearly 30-mile stretch of road. CDOT says there is no estimated time for reopening as they work to clean up from the flood.

Burn scars are having impacts elsewhere in Colorado. Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon continues to face closures due to mudslides caused by rains in the Grizzly Creek fire burn scar. The latest closure also occurred Tuesday night, and the National Weather Service has warned of increased flooding in burn scar areas as a monsoonal weather pattern takes hold.

Last year’s Cameron Peak fire west of Fort Collins was the largest wildfire in recorded state history, scorching 208,663 acres of land.

“With the burn scars, the soil is hydrophobic after the fire,” said Jennifer Stark, a meteorologist with the NWS. “There’s a layer in the soil that’s impermeable where all the water runs off, and there’s no vegetation to slow down the water. So we’re hyper-aware of the potential for floods in these areas when forecasting.”

Stark said it does not take much water for floods in these areas. In July, monsoonal moisture, weak winds and Colorado’s rocky terrain in the high country — as well as the burn scars — leave these areas with a high possibility for quick floods.

“Over the next several days, the monsoonal moisture will be right over Colorado, especially the western part of the state,” Stark said. “This is not anything new with flash flooding threats existing in the mountains, given the terrain in the canyons, but then you put the burn scar on top of that it and amplifies the threat. It’s really concerning for those who live downstream. We recommend having a plan to get to higher ground and having multiple ways to get warnings from the National Weather Service.”

Smith wrote of his experience, witnessing significant damage as downed trees and mud flowed in Poudre Canyon late Tuesday.

“During this event, we evacuated the canyon — not knowing how this debris might impact persons and property downstream,” Smith noted. “Mandatory evacuations were lifted later in the evening. However, forecasts for Wednesday include the possibility for similar weather in the coming days. The risk of debris flow damage remains, and we caution any resident or visitors to the canyon to remain vigilant.”

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