From The Denver Post (Nancy Lofholm):
Residents along Salt Creek Road were loading up horses Wednesday, lining up a moving truck for a 127-year-old grand piano, boxing up baby pictures and reassuring anxious relatives by phone that they were keeping a close eye on the huge landslide on the mountain above them. About 35 of them were warned by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday night that they should be prepared to leave at any time. A lake of trapped water is building up behind a huge earthen slab at the top of the slide and could send another torrent of mud down Salt Creek and into this neighborhood of ranches.
The unusually massive slide, which is three miles long and half-mile wide, first let go Sunday afternoon. It roared down a north face of Grand Mesa at an estimated 170 miles per hour, moving like cement down a concrete-truck chute, burying three local men and now threatening to inflict more damage.
The county has declared a state of emergency for the area, and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office has promised help. Federal and state government slide experts are on the ground and in the air studying and monitoring the unstable mass in hopes they can issue a timely warning if it begins to move again.
Some who live along Salt Creek Road and have Salt Creek running at capacity in their backyards aren’t waiting any longer for that warning. They are getting out now.
“We rode up to the slide area on horseback, and I seen what I need to see,” said Shelby Ehart, who was packing up his wife, Jennifer, and their four children and the Salt Creek Ranch livestock and heading for a friend’s house in nearby Molina. Ehart said he grew up hunting in the area of the slide and was shocked when he found ravines he knows were 800- to 900-feet deep now brim full of mud and debris.
“We don’t want to overreact,” said Jennifer Ehart as her husband loaded horses, “but we also don’t want to take chances.”
Across Salt Creek Road, Shannon Murphy cradled her 10-day-old baby and said she has put together a plan to get out if need be. But she is waiting for word from experts before she gets out.
“We’re just paying attention to the people who know the land, know the water and know the topography,” she said.
One of those is her father, Tom “Pudge” Cox, who was a state water commissioner for 27 years. If he decides it’s time to get out, Murphy said she will. Her next-door neighbor Celia Eklund also has been consulting with her son, James. He is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. She and her husband have plans to go to Arvada and stay with a daughter if the experts say go.
Authorities have handed out fliers advising residents to have evacuation plans while the experts puzzle over a slide that is unusual in its size and in its formation of what is essentially a poorly dammed lake at the top.
The search for the three local men presumed buried — Wes Hawkins, 46, Danny Nichols, 24, and his father, Clancy Nichols, 51 — remains suspended because of the unstable area.
Geologists, hydrologists and engineers have been working with local experts such as Pudge Cox to try to get a better handle on how the slide might behave from here on out. A big unknown affecting that is how deep the lake is at the top. They are using sheriff’s office drones that have the capability to survey the slide to see if it is moving and the lake to see how deep it is. The team of experts was joined Wednesday by U.S. Geological Survey geologists who had worked on the slide that killed 41 people in an Oso, Wash., subdivision in March.
Collbran interim manager Davis Farrar said town officials are meeting with the experts and the sheriff’s office nightly to assess the dangers and to plan for worst-case scenarios. The experts have said that it is possible another slide could bring mud and debris all the way into Collbran if it hits Plateau Creek where it intersects with Salt Creek and builds up debris at a bridge in the middle of this town of less than 400. Farrar plans to call a community meeting Thursday night so that residents can get the latest information and know, as close as anyone can tell, what the true threat is.
Kaden Ehart, the 14-year-old son of Shelby and Jennifer Ehart, said he doesn’t need experts to tell him.
“It has to come down here,” he said of the lake filling above their home. “There ain’t no other place for it to go.”
Rodney Hewitt’s home is the closest to the slide. It stopped about 300 yards from his house as he watched television inside and thought he was just hearing thunder. The slide also registered as a magnitude 2.8 earthquake, according to the USGS. But Hewitt isn’t leaving yet. He said he will know it is time to go “when I look up and see trees falling. Then I’ll fire up the pickup and get the hell out of Dodge.”
Those who stay for now won’t be resting easy. Celia Eklund said she no longer feels safe in the home she grew up in and that has always been her “place of comfort and safety throughout my life.”
“Come on mountain,” she said as she stood in her front yard shaking a fist toward the slide area and fighting back tears. “Stay where you’re at.”