Wednesday, Aug 24, 2011
Although firefighters were able to protect the park’s headquarters area from the Las Conchas Fire earlier this year, the fire burned most of the vegetation from the upper sections of Frijoles Canyon. Without plants to slow down and absorb the rain from summer thunderstorms, the canyon was ripe for flashfloods, such as those being experienced in many other watersheds in the fire’s footprint. In the weeks since the fire, personnel at Bandelier prepared the area around the visitor center and other historic CCC structures to withstand the force of flows estimated to potentially be as much as eight feet deep. Preparations included removing the car and foot bridges to help the creek flow through without logjams forming. The visitor center was wrapped in plywood, plastic sheeting, and thousands of sandbags, and long walls of jersey barriers and sandbags were placed to attempt to keep debris flows away from the walls of the building. On Sunday afternoon, a large thunderstorm put these preparations to the test. The rain began in the upper Frijoles Canyon area in early afternoon and fell heavily for nearly two hours. Around 6 p.m., the creek began to rise in the visitor center area and within about a minute was roaring through the picnic and parking areas, black with ash and carrying logs and rocks. A log in the creek bed diverted water toward the buildings, rolling several large concrete barriers and breaking the steel cable holding them. The flow made it as far as the restroom wall, carrying away several hundred sandbags. Within ten minutes the flood began to subside. Rainfall gauges showed the total for the storm was 1.26 inches in upper Frijoles and 2.74 inches at Ponderosa Campground. “It appears that the efforts we made to protect the canyon resources were successful,” said superintendent Jason Lott. “It was hard to accept the need to remove all the bridges. Filling and stacking 14,000 sandbags – and all the rest of the work – was expensive and difficult. This is only the first flood; we could have a lot more, and others could be even larger. But we know the damage would have been far more severe if we hadn’t taken the proactive measures.” With flood danger continuing, Bandelier sites that are available for visitor use are the Tsankawi section, Juniper Campground, and the Burnt Mesa and Tyuonyi Overlook trails. There is presently no fee for day visits, but campers must pay for using the campground. For general park information, call 505-672-3861x517, visit Bandelier’s website at www.nps.gov/band, or become a fan at www.facebook.com/BandelierNPS.