DENVER (AP) — Authorities braced for the possibility of another landslide in a remote part of western Colorado as they surveyed a massive debris field Tuesday amid dangerously unstable conditions that led them to call off the search for three ranchers missing there.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said the search eventually could resume for Clancy Nichols, 51, who also worked as a county road and bridge employee; his son Danny Nichols, 24; and Wes Hawkins, 46.
But it might not be safe enough to do so until summer.
"We don't want to create any more tragedy than we already have," Hilkey said.
The three men were checking on irrigation problems caused by an initial slide Sunday when a large chunk of a ridge broke off, sending soggy earth spilling like wet cement.
The slide happened in a sparsely populated area. It is 3 miles long, about three-quarters of a mile across at its widest and several hundred feet deep at the center. Even at its edges, the pile is 30 feet deep, Hilkey said.
The slide most likely was triggered by runoff from Grand Mesa — one of the world's largest flat-topped mountains — following two days of strong rain, Hilkey has said.
Jonathan White, a Colorado Geological Survey geologist at the site, told reporters Tuesday another slide seemed inevitable because of a buildup of water in a depression created by the first big slide.
"We're having a significant amount of runoff that's flowing into that depression right now," White said. "That's a big concern."
White said it was impossible to predict when the next slide would occur. It could be years from now, when people have forgotten the danger and no longer are taking precautions, he said.
Mudslides are common in the region, which sits on soft sandstone and layers of weak rock, said state geologist Karen Berry. The area saw a spate of them in the 1980s.
It was the size of Sunday's event that made it unusual.
The sheriff said the slide at one point roared up a hill and then down again.
"The power of the slide itself is enormous," Hilkey said.
For now, little can be done to minimize the risk of another slide. The terrain is too unstable for the work necessary to try to drain the water, geologists said.
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