Top story of 2014: Grand Mesa landslide — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post
Grand Mesa mudslide before and after via The Denver Post

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Emily Shockley/Amy Hamilton):

Even if you’re not technically “family,” you’re family in Plateau Valley.

Folks who raise livestock, hunt wildlife, send their children to the same schools, open businesses and relish living among the pastoral hills with views of the Grand Mesa have bonded and blended for generations.

It’s more uncommon not to know your neighbors than to have known them your whole life in and around Collbran, an outpost of about 200 people tucked in the shadow of the world’s largest flattop mountain.

So it was with a heavy heart that two of the area’s founding families lost three men this year when a flank of the mesa peeled off at lightning speed the night of May 25.

The massive slide was the top story of 2014, as chosen by Daily Sentinel editors and reporters.

Searchers including friends, family and professionals immediately dispatched to the site as word circulated that Clancy Nichols, 51, his 24-year-old son Danny Nichols, and father of five children, 46-year-old Wes Hawkins, were missing and possibly buried in the sea of mud and debris. The three were checking up on reports that nearby ranchland was seen shifting and irrigation pipes weren’t working.

At 5:44 p.m. a fatal mix of pounding rain and melting snow caused a Grand Mesa hillside to unleash a rumbling cascade of 39 million cubic meters of mud, rock and scenic landscape. It also left anxious residents of Collbran on edge, waiting to see whether more wreckage would follow.

Dubbed a once-in-10,000-years event, the West Salt Creek landslide traveled nearly three miles downhill in two minutes, according to seismic data.

Hawkins worked for the Collbran Conservancy District, coached a variety of sports teams, photographed local athletes during games and was a loving father to five children.

Clancy Nichols was a veteran employee of Mesa County’s Road and Bridge Department and was known as both a generous man and a stickler for perfection, requiring his two sons to build everything to code and drive the speed limit along Plateau Valley’s winding roads before they could attempt to get a driver’s license.

Clancy Nichols’ only surviving son, Matt Nichols, told The Daily Sentinel a couple weeks after the landslide that his brother Danny probably went up the hillside with their father on that tragic day to investigate a report of a smaller landslide uphill from the landslide that would claim the father and son’s lives.

Danny earned a degree in geology from the University of Wyoming in Laramie and was a geologist with Olsson Associates in Grand Junction. He dreamed of moving to New Zealand, according to his brother, but decided after becoming a geologist to settle in Plateau Valley. He had considered purchasing a piece of land across KE Road from his grandmother’s home before his death.

The human toll of the landslide left Plateau Valley residents grieving. That grief was mixed with another emotion — anxiety — for residents and members of an incident command team formed immediately after the slide, all of whom weren’t sure at first if another slide was coming.

More than 250 residents of the Collbran area who crammed into a public information meeting at Collbran Town Hall four days after the landslide were told the site remained active, with three or four rockslides per hour.

The incident command team, which comprised representatives from various county departments, the U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado School of Mines, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, was most concerned about a 500- to 600-feet-wide hunk of dirt resting near the top of the slide. Water continued to pool behind the dirt chunk, creating a makeshift lake. If the lake continued to grow, Jeff Coe with U.S. Geological Survey told the standing-room-only crowd, the water could send the block tumbling down the landslide route. Global Positioning System monitors and cameras were strategically placed around the slide site to gauge whether the block or any other debris was starting to wobble.

“If (movement) starts increasing, that’s where we need to be concerned,” Coe said.

Luckily, another landslide has not come to pass and the water level behind the block has decreased over time. Still, monitoring continues. In October, the county received a $60,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to purchase equipment and services needed to continue monitoring the landslide area throughout the winter. That’s on top of the half a million dollars offered by the state’s Disaster Emergency Fund for response efforts through an executive order Gov. John Hickenlooper signed five days after the slide.

Mesa County Deputy Administrator for Operations Pete Baier said this week not much is expected to happen at the site over the winter because the ground has frozen. “The next milestone will be when we have spring runoff next year,” Baier said. “There is still about 50 million yards of dirt sitting in that valley, but the water behind it has stopped” flowing into the slide-made lake near the top of the slide.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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