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Poudre Canyon Flood: Search Continues For 3 Missing People, Sheriff Reopens River Access

poudre-canyon-flood-20210721.jpg
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Logs and debris engulf a bridge in Poudre Canyon on Wednesday, July 21, the morning after flash flooding triggered multiple mudslides.

Thursday, 7/22/2021 updates

5:26 p.m. - Heavy debris flow is complicating search and rescue efforts along the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, where three people are still missing in the wake of flash flooding earlier this week.

Crew members and search dogs scoured the canyon on Thursday to try to locate the unaccounted for residents. Rugged terrain, along with piles of burned-out logs and thick mud from the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar slowed down the process, said Jared Kramer, public information officer with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

“At this point, we’re hoping for a lucky break,” Kramer said. “Or a lucky whiff from a dog to get us onto the right trail.”

At least one person was killed during the flooding, which began around 5 p.m. on Tuesday in the upper Poudre Canyon, near where the Cameron Peak Fire ignited last fall.

Progress has been made clearing mud and debris from the highway since then. The sheriff’s office reopened a stretch of the Poudre River east of Rustic on Thursday.

Dozens of homes and businesses in the upper part of the Canyon are still without power. The Poudre Valley REA, the region’s electricity co-op, says debris is still blocking access to damaged power lines, but crews are working on getting power restored.

The National Weather Service in Boulder is forecasting more rain in the coming days, which could lead to more flooding around the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar, which covers over 200,000 acres.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office issued voluntary evacuations for several communities Thursday afternoon, including Glen Haven and Drake, due to the “potential for more flooding.”

The search along the Poudre Canyon will continue Friday morning with reduced resources, according to the sheriff’s office.

“As restrictions are lifted, we encourage those entering the canyon to be mindful of the weather and river status during the visit,” the office said in a statement. “The forecast calls for more thunderstorm activity and conditions can change very rapidly.”

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Wednesday, 7/21/2021 updates

6:02 p.m. - Larimer County rescue crews have recovered the body of a woman who died Tuesday night during flash flooding in the upper Poudre Canyon. They also identified another person, an adult woman, who is still missing.

The addition raises the total number of people unaccounted for to three.

Search and rescue efforts will remain ongoing through the rest of the week, the sheriff’s office said in an update. Meanwhile, a 30-mile stretch of the Poudre River remains closed to recreation from the town of Rustic up to the mouth of the canyon just west of Fort Collins.

“A tremendous amount of debris has been washed into the river and we do not know what hazards exist currently and may arise as water continues to flow,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “We also have forecasts for more potential flooding in the coming days.”

Rainstorms triggered the flooding around 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, primarily along a stretch of the canyon west of Rustic where the Cameron Peak Fire ignited last fall. The water mixed with dirt, trees, rocks and other debris in the burn scar, causing large mudslides that damaged at least five structures and part of Highway 14, according to the sheriff’s office.

Progress has been made clearing mud and debris from the highway. The Colorado Department of Transportation reopened a closed section of the road west of Rustic Wednesday afternoon.

Dozens of residents and tourists visiting rural communities west of Rustic were still without power Wednesday afternoon. The Poudre Valley REA, the regional electric co-op, said it had identified the source of power outages, but couldn’t access damaged power lines.

“There remains large amounts of debris in the area that eliminate all access for our crews to complete repairs at this time,” the co-op said in a tweet.

The National Weather Service in Boulder is forecasting more rain in the coming days, which could lead to more flooding around the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar, which covers over 200,000 acres.

Local first responders say they’re preparing for the worst. The American Red Cross’ Northern Colorado chapter has assembled volunteers and supplies to deploy to more evacuation sites, if needed.

“We are ready to go,” said Melissa Venable, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

The Colorado Department of Transportation says heavy rain could trigger more flooding and road closures in other burn scars across the state.

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4:08 p.m. - A search and rescue effort is underway to locate two missing people after flash flooding and mudslides swept through a stretch of the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins Tuesday night.

At least one person, an adult woman, was killed during the flood, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

“As operations continue, emergency crews will be searching on foot and with drones,” the office said in a statement Wednesday. “Divers will be attempting to recover the body of the deceased female and a passenger vehicle that is in the river.”

The flooding led the office to issue brief mandatory evacuations Tuesday night. A flash flood watch is in effect for most of the Cameron Peak burn scar through Wednesday evening, and Larimer County’s sheriff has closed the Poudre River for all recreational use until further notice.

The restrictions may last through the weekend, depending on the weather, according to the sheriff’s office.

Many Poudre Canyon residents returned to their homes and businesses on Wednesday, but said they were watching the Poudre River and debris flow closely.

“We are all fine and everything is 100% operational,” said Chris Dinnin, owner of Bighorn Cabins in Rustic, which is just downstream of the primary flood zone. “We’re keeping our eye out today, of course, and being vigilant when necessary.”

Farther upstream, many residents and businesses are still without power. Photos from first responders show massive piles of burned-out tree trunks, rocks and destroyed bridges along the river. Mud slicks still cover parts of the highway.

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Colorado Dept. of Transportation
Mud and debris along Highway 14 after flash flooding in the Poudre Canyon.

Dozens of visitors at the Trading Post Resort in Bellvue were still without power and phone service Wednesday afternoon. The cabins, located on the upper part of the canyon at a higher elevation, escaped damage from the debris flow Tuesday night, said owner Andy Collins.

He drove several miles over muddy roads to make phone calls to family and friends in Rustic Wednesday afternoon. He said people in the area are “mostly calm” and are trying to keep things “business as usual” while crews clean the area up.

“Everybody’s kind of concerned,” Collins said. “It’s just one of those watching and waiting to see what happens kind of things.”

Drinking water not affected by debris flows

The city of Fort Collins’ drinking water supply wasn’t immediately affected by Tuesday’s flash flood.

City staff say they were able to shut off the city’s Poudre River intake before the mudslides began. The city’s drinking water will come solely from Horsetooth Reservoir until sediment and ash settles out of the river.

No debris has collected in the intake structure yet, said Mariel Miller, a Fort Collins Utilities water quality specialist. The city’s drinking water infrastructure was not damaged during Tuesday’s debris flows.

Fort Collins remains under a water shortage watch, where residents are asked to voluntarily reduce their outdoor use as the city’s water supply options are limited due to wildfire runoff into the Poudre River.

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8:44 a.m. - Flash flooding along Highway 14 in the Poudre Canyon triggered mudslides, debris flows and power outages Tuesday night.

According to Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, at least one person is dead and two more may still be missing. Several structures in an area just west of the town of Rustic where the body was found were damaged or destroyed but some residents were able to get out safely, Smith said.

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation told the Coloradoan that the flooding triggered six mudslides.

"I personally witnessed significant debris and damage in the area, caused by downed trees, damaged and destroyed homes and mudflow," Smith said in a Facebook post. "The risk of debris flow damage remains and we caution any resident or visitors (to) the canyon to remain vigilant."

More than 100 households in the area are still without power, according to the Poudre Valley REA, the area’s electricity provider.

“For those members, we are expecting extended outages that could last multiple days,” the co-op said in a tweet.

The Red Cross opened an evacuation center at Cache La Porte Middle School in Laporte.

Highway 14 remains closed in both directions between Rustic and Cameron Pass near the Cameron Peak burn scar. The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office says it's on high alert for more flooding today — a flash flood watch will be in effect from noon to 8 p.m.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.