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August 29, 2014

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First fire, now floods: Mount Charleston’s forgettable summer

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Steve Marcus

Lauren Olson, left, and Becky Grismanauskas, right, look over damage to the Grismanauskas home after heavy storm runoff tore through the Rainbow Canyon subdivision on Mount Charleston Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013.

Flood Damage in Rainbow Subdivision

Lauren Olson, left, and Becky Grismanauskas, right, look over damage to the Grismanauskas home after heavy storm runoff tore through the Rainbow Canyon subdivision on Mount Charleston Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Thunder claps and their accompanying rain over a nearby mountain peak Sunday morning first alerted Becky Grismanauskas something was amiss.

Normally, Grismanauskas didn’t worry about rain. When she and her husband built their home in the Rainbow Subdivision of Mount Charleston, they asked the Clark County flood control district to make sure their property wasn’t at risk of flooding.

“They checked it out. We thought we did all the right things. We have never in 23 years had a flood,” she said. “Until now.”

A week before the thunder portended trouble on Sept. 1, heavy rains caused flash flooding near Grismanauskas’ home, although the damage was minimal.

Local forest officials warned residents that flooding could continue to carry down debris from this summer’s Mount Charleston wildfire, so when Grismanauskas saw storms brewing Sunday, she stepped out onto her deck to look around.

“They said be on the lookout if the sky starts to get dark,” she said.

Nervously checking the sky for signs of rain has become a new routine in a summer of firsts for Grismanauskas and her neighbors. The July fire forced Grismanauskas, a town board member, off the mountain for 13 days, the first time she and her husband had ever been evacuated in all their years living there. The fire, though, destroyed much of the vegetation that used to help control runoff, exposing residential areas of the mountain to the wrath of flash floods.

Between 1.5 and 2 inches of rain would fall in an hour Sunday morning. The location of Sunday’s storm combined with the fire damage created a perfect set of conditions that put the Rainbow Subdivision in peril.

Just as Grismanauskas was leaving her house to check on the storm, a wall of water rushed down a nearby ravine. The runoff morphed into a raging river that would flow through her yard and basement for the next hour.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said.

Still in shock, Grismanauskas rushed back into the house and grabbed her cellphone, returning outside to capture video of the unbelievable scene.

She said she wasn’t entirely sure why she decided in the moment to record the flooding, but part of it stemmed from an urge to document the chaos as proof she and her neighbors could use to show something needed to be done to protect homes in the area.

After the waters receded, Rainbow Subdivision residents emerged to find the ground covered in a mucky layer of mud, ash and debris.

The swift waters picked up Grismanauskas’ husband’s red pickup truck and carried it 150 yards down the road, totaling it in the process. Their Cadillac Escalade also was totaled after being barraged by a cast-iron lawn bench and several cords of firewood that had been stacked nearby.

“A log went through the window of my husband’s workshop that’s below our deck. The rush of water burst through the doors, through the shop and came out the other doors, washing out pretty much everything that was in there,” Grismanauskas said. “We had an old Golden Nugget slot machine in there that we recovered from by the fire hydrant down the road.”

The debris piled as high as four feet in places, Grismanauskas said, and destroyed much of Rainbow Canyon Boulevard, the main road that serves the subdivision.

County crews are working to repair the road and have spent the past week clearing the destroyed pavement from the area. The now dirt road has reopened, and spokesman Dan Kulin said public works plans to install a temporary surface to last until it can be repaved next spring.

“There might be more settling and shifting of the road. So by doing the paving right now, you’re running a bigger risk that there would need to be some major repairs by the springtime anyway,” Kulin said.

Altogether, the county expects the cleanup and repaving to cost about $260,000.

Grismanauskas and her husband still are calculating the cost of damage to their property. The two don’t have flood insurance — they never thought they’d need it — and they’re concerned future rains could bring more flooding.

Forest officials conducted a community meeting recently to update residents and tell them they were looking at several options to lessen the intensity of future floods, including re-seeding large parts of the burned areas to increase vegetation and slow runoff.

“We don’t know what to do,” Grismanauskas said. “The rains aren’t over yet.”

Grismanauskas said she and her husband had no plans to leave Mount Charleston, but they’re looking forward to a change of season and hoping the events of the past few months were natural oddities they won’t have to deal with every year.

“We’ll stick it out. We love it here,” she said. “But I for one will be happy to see this summer end.”

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