Oak Creek Canyon prepares for landslide

Sedona, AZ – The Burned Area Emergency Response or BAER Team has developed a plan to help alleviate a potential catastrophic landslide.

BAER hydrologist Jack Norman stands near the Encinoso picnic area in Oak Creek Canyon.

He says his team is planting native grass seeds to hold the soil in place.

NORMAN: This is more like a bandaid to get temporary ground cover. The native vegetation will grow back over time this is just a temporary fix. The chaperal type plants that burned off they'll come back very fast. The trees will be a lot slower unfortunately.

In addition to the seeding efforts, the Coconino Rural Environmental Corps is cutting down hazardous burned trees in areas along 89A.

(sound of chainsaw and tree falling)

Norman says the logs can be stacked and used to slow down the rain and potential rocks falling off the canyon walls.

NORMAN: Rocks fall off these cliffs after every rain every rain! We had one just right up here you saw that boulder on the side of the road that came off The rain will set em up. They're just teetering up there and they could come off any time.

Norman says unfortunately the fire burned most intensely in the designated wilderness area of the canyon.

The BAER team is not allowed to work in those areas.

The land that's been burned the worst becomes what he calls hydrophobic.

In other words water bounces off the soil instead of seeping into it.

NORMAN: So we have the potential for a high debris flow coming down off the steep fire areas. Most should end up in the three or four washes or drainages but there is potential for debris flow and boulders for sure coming onto the highway.

Norman says people take a chance when they decide to live in a fire prone area like Oak Creek Canyon.

(bring up and under meeting amby)
About 50 of those people attend a recent emergency preparedness meeting in Sedona.

Coconino County Emergency Manager Sherry Collins tells residents they should prepare to evacuate several times over the next few months.

COLLINS: When we look at residents from other communities in southern Arizona who have been survivors of these types of events, they'll tell you they left their home time and time and time again and on the fifth time the debris flow came. And on the fifth time it took a life.

Collins explains to the crowd when the burned area receives a tremendous amount of rain over a short period of time, a debris flow can occur.

That could dam the creek and cause a flood.

She says emergency response officials are installing rain gauges in two of the canyon's watershed areas.

She says authorities will monitor the gauges.

They'll notify residents when gauges indicate a dangerous level of rain.

COLLINS: This is not 24-hour notification. This is not half day notification. This is leave immediately. We're talking about an event that can occur in a very short amount of time.

Experts say people have about 20 minutes to act before a debris flow could occur.

People who live in Oak Creek Canyon are accustomed to the occasional boulder falling on Highway 89A.

But a landslide is rare.

Kirk Gasbarra lives near the Dairy Queen where a major landslide occurred in 1970.

He says he takes the canyon seriously.

GASBARRA: When the soil expert is talking about a 20-minute window between a major weather event and flow of debris what he means by flow of debris is a tsunami of liquid stone. We've seen it on TV in other parts of the world. This can happen in our canyon.

Authorities have come up with several ways to notify people of danger - a new siren system, a phone alert and weather radio announcements.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Sedona.

Photo Gallery of the Brins Fire