A community of about 150 residents was devastated after Tropical Storm Hilary brought eight inches of rainfall to Mt. Charleston, leading to a “historic” flood in the early morning of August 21. According to the U.S. Forest Service, many areas received the equivalent of their annual rainfall in 48 hours of the storm.
The floodwaters caused damage to homes in the Echo, Old Town and Rainbow subdivisions, and buildings including a Mt. Charleston Fire Protection District building and Earl B. Lundy Elementary School. In the immediate aftermath, Mt. Charleston Fire Protection District evacuated about 51 people from the mountain while others stayed in their homes, according to the Las Vegas Sun. No injuries were reported.
“I couldn’t describe it. I’ve never seen it like that,” Mt. Charleston Fire Protection District Chief Jorge Gonzalez said at a press conference held on the day of the flood. Gonzalez has been fire chief in Mt. Charleston since 2008, he said.
After some infrastructure assessments were done, residents were asked to voluntarily evacuate. More than three weeks later, a “boil water” order remains in effect for some residents, and drinking water is being delivered to the mountain, according to the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) is working around the clock to restore miles of damage on State Route 156 (Lee Canyon Road) and SR-157 (Kyle Canyon Road), with the “ambitious” goal of finishing by early October.
“We are racing the onset of winter weather, which would hamper our paving efforts. We are also working as quickly as possible to restore roadway service to residents and those making repairs to the communities,” NDOT spokesman Justin Hopkins tells the Weekly, adding that SR-158 (Deer Creek Road) will be addressed in a separate contract at a later date.
As those immediate needs are addressed, the entire Las Vegas community is reeling from the temporary loss of recreational opportunities on the mountain. Although dispersed areas in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, where Mt. Charleston is located, reopened September 1, the more popular developed canyons remain closed until further notice.
“We would typically have our National Public Lands Day big volunteer event at the end of this month. That’s not happening,” says Leonie Mowat, director of operations and communications for the Southern Nevada Conservancy.
Through the branch Go Mt. Charleston, the Southern Nevada Conservancy operates under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to provide interpretive, educational and volunteer programs in several areas in Southern Nevada including the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. With the nationwide volunteer effort National Public Lands Day happening on September 23, Mowat says it’s disappointing they won’t be able to have volunteers at the mountain.
But it’s “exciting” to see the community’s enthusiasm to help. On August 26, Go Mt. Charleston posted a link for interested volunteers to sign up to help in the area once it reopens. Within two weeks, they got more than 400 sign-ups, Mowat says.
“I have been in this role for 10 years now. I grew up in Las Vegas. I got married at Cathedral Rock. I know, personally, that people consider Mt. Charleston [as] our place,” she says. “The Spring Mountains are for the locals. It is a place for refuge. It’s this alpine oasis that I think so many people, even if they’re relatively new residents of Las Vegas, when they see it, they want to take care of it.”
One of the volunteer projects that is expected to open this fall and winter is invasive species removal. “Once the minimal safety limitations get lifted, we do foresee, in the short term, getting some of those invasives removed before the winter season,” Mowat explains.
“One of the big problems that happens when you have a big disturbance in soil—invasive species of plants tend to love that. … It really is a lot more important than people realize, because they crowd out the natives as they try to grow back; and they also become easy fuel for fires.”
Seed gathering and trail maintenance volunteer opportunities could be forthcoming, pending the lifting of visitation restrictions.
“I want people’s enthusiasm to stay. The flood damage doesn’t go away in six months. It doesn’t go away with the news cycle. It does take years to repair these sorts of things,” Mowat says.
The U.S. Forest Service did not return the Weekly’s request for comment on which areas of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area still need to be assessed, or whether volunteer opportunities would be viable for fall or winter.
LEE CANYON RENOVATION
It was “tough” when Lee Canyon announced the end of summer operations, says director of marketing and sales Jim Seely. “With all the other agencies involved-—NDOT, U.S. Forest Service mainly—[saying], ‘Hey, this area is closed,’ then that kind of makes the decision for us.”
Lee Canyon’s photos of the flood damage showed the base area of a chairlift piled high with rocks and debris, making it impossible to conduct scenic chair rides that the park typically does in the summer. Furthermore, mountain biking trails “at the widest, 60 inches” were damaged by erosion. Thanks to runoff diversion designs, the Hillside Lodge came out “untouched,” Seely says.
So far, Lee Canyon has been able to clear out the base areas of chairlifts. “It took around 240 hauls with those heavy machinery dump trucks to get all the debris out. All that debris was moved from there and used to backfill all the erosion that took place on the bunny hill and the upper slopes,” he adds.
“It’s unfortunate, in one aspect. But then, in another aspect, let’s focus on getting things up to speed for winter season. That’s kind of where our mind shifted.”
Prior to the flood, Lee Canyon announced a $7 million renovation project adding a new chairlift called Ponderosa, a “moving carpet” conveyor for kids and 450-stall parking lot. The improvements originally were scheduled to come online in time for the 2023-24 winter season. Seely says that timeline remains in place.
“[That] has not been set back. For the Ponderosa chairlift … it wasn’t in the middle of installation where the exposed chair towers were up,” Seely says. “So, we’re confident we’ll have that chairlift ready to go for opening day, tentatively slated for the winter season.”
Between then and now, specialists will be in the area testing Lee Canyon’s infrastructure, including power and water systems and facilities, to make sure they’re safe to reopen to the public.
“Hopefully very soon, we’ll have chairlift inspectors looking not just at where the rocks were, but inspecting every chair tower, making sure the foundation below every chair tower is stable, and that water didn’t erode away any of the foundation of the chair towers,” Seely says.
For now, the U.S. Forest Service reminds the public that Mt. Charleston’s developed canyons remain closed to the public. Violation of the closure could result in a fine up to $2,500. Updates about area closures and reopenings are available on the U.S. Forest Service-Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Facebook page (facebook.com/HumboldtToiyabeNF).
Mowat says the priority is to keep people safe as initial repairs are made.
“There’s a reason why the closed areas are still closed. It doesn’t behoove any of the agencies to keep them closed longer than they need to be. They just want to keep them closed for as long as it takes to make sure they’re safe for the public to reenter.”
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