SAN LUIS — Costilla County has completed more than 40 post-fire flood mitigation projects resulting in closing of the Disaster Recovery Office.
These projects invested $1.35 million to make Costilla County a more resilient community after the disastrous Spring Fire of 2018. Ninety-five percent of these projects were grant funded with a 5 percent match coming from private landowner associations.
During late June and early July of 2018, the Spring Fire burned 108,045-acres in Costilla and Huerfano Counties. At the time, it was the second largest single ignition fire in Colorado’s history trailing only the 2002 Hayman Fire. Both fires have the dubious distinction of being started by arson, with 149 homes destroyed by the fire in Costilla County and the charred landscape left the threat of devastating floods in a large swath of the northern part of the county.
Jesper Joergensen, an illegal immigrant from Norway, charged with arson in the numerous fires, has yet to be tried, but is set for a review hearing Oct. 23. He has been under treatment to ensure he is capable of trial.While the fire was still burning, Costilla County began taking the first steps for recovery that would be an ongoing task for the next 27 months. With the help of regional and state partners and the leadership of Chris Rodriguez, the county’s emergency management coordinator, Costilla County drafted and adopted a disaster recovery plan. The county also quickly moved to be a sponsor of the USDA Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP).
The EWP Program alleviates threats to life and property that remain in watersheds in the aftermath of natural disasters. The program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and provides support to local sponsors to preserve life and property threatened by disaster-caused erosion and flooding. NRCS initially determined that 49 properties with structures were at-risk and eligible for EWP funding.
In March 2019 Costilla County hired Ron Ridley as Disaster Recovery Manager for carrying out the recovery efforts following the fire. Funding for the position was provided by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) and the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). As the EWP project sponsor, Costilla County designated the Disaster Recovery Manager to oversee the projects, provide quality control and act as the liaison between federal, state and local authorities, the homeowners’ associations, individual landowners and the selected contractors.
Although some landowners chose to not participate in the EWP program, ultimately, over the course of 2019 and 2020, 38 individual EWP projects were completed by Cooley & Sons Excavating of Mosca and Robins Construction of Antonito under the guidance of NRCS and Costilla County. All EWP projects were completed by July 2020 at a cost of just over $1.2 million dollars.
Costilla County also successfully obtained a grant through DOLA to make substantial improvements to Beekman Road at the Wagon Creek crossing site where a railroad trestle burned during the fire. The destruction of the trestle and the post-fire flood potential of Wagon Creek left this county road vulnerable to severe wash-out following the fire, so $80,000 was obtained to armor the creek bed and replace and armor the culverts under the roadway. Three new culverts were installed and the roadway was elevated and widened at the creek crossing.
During the Spring Fire, the Colorado Digital Trunked Radio System tower in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was nearly compromised, which would have severely degraded radio communications for first responders as the fire grew rapidly. As a result of the fire, a plan was developed to provide redundancy in Costilla County’s radio communications. Costilla County successfully obtained $65,000 in grant funding from USDA Rural Development, DHSEM and the San Luis Valley E911 for this vital project to fund the placement of a VHF radio repeater on La Veta Pass and the acquisition of base stations and portable radios.
Costilla County’s response and recovery to the Spring Fire has been a Herculean effort recognized by the state for its proficiency. There are simply too many people, departments and agencies that selflessly participated when times got tough to name individually. The successful completion of these projects and the closing of the Disaster Recovery Office is a testament to what can be accomplished when a community and region works together in responding to and recovering from a disaster.