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Monitoring Utah's burn scars for flash flooding

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 - Utah) The worst of fire season is seemingly behind us, but our PinPoint Weather team has been tracking the latest danger: debris flow.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 - Utah) The worst of fire season is seemingly behind us, but our PinPoint Weather team has been tracking the latest danger: debris flow.

Heavy rains can send mud and debris crashing into homes for as many as three years after the fire.

"It's 24 hours, 7 days a week,” said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. “Whenever we have thunderstorms, we could have debris flows and these things kill people."

After any fire in Utah, McInerney is one of the first people on that burn scar.

"I go out with a group of scientists, physical scientists and we analyze the slope for stability, for vegetation, for burn intensity, & for burn severity,” said McInerney.

From there, he calculates how much rain could trigger a mudslide in that particular area.

McInerney says it’s tricky, because like each fire, each burn scar is unique.

It only takes a quarter-inch of rain on the Seeley Burn Scar, in Huntington Canyon, to trigger a slide. That burn scar has seen 13 major debris flows.

“We have other [burn scars] that can take an inch, maybe more that don't produce a debris flow,” said McInerney.

For the most dangerous scars, the NWS has four weather stations on the ground.

"It's a tripod,” said McInerney. “It doesn't look like much, it's minimal."

It may not look like much, but it can do a lot. The stations monitor wind and rain, sending information to a satellite, then back to the NWS.

"It's very fast,” said McInerney. “It's up to date and allows us to keep up to date with what's going on."

Monitoring the burn scars takes more than just the stations, the NWS and the ABC4 Utah PinPoint Weather Team use radar to track the storms in the sky.

“If there's an imminent threat of a burn scar, for flash flooding or debris flow, we'll be on air within two minutes,” said Chief Meteorologist Jim Kosek.

"We've had them come down where they break the windows, flood the basement, slam doors shut,” said McInerney. “If you have a little kid in the basement, it's really a bad time."

Burn scars take a few years before they are no longer considered a threat. The four NWS weather stations are portable, and will be moved to different burn scars as needed.

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