DENVER - Authorities are bracing for the possibility of another landslide in a remote part of western Colorado amid dangerously unstable conditions that led them to call off the search for three ranchers missing there.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said Tuesday 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, the longtime manager of the local water district.
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.
Both Hilkey and Hawkins' family said it was natural for the men to check on the problem since water is the lifeblood of the West.
"He was concerned for other families and their homes should the water system be compromised," Hawkins' family said in a statement.
The slide 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 in the sparsely populated area 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, 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 because the terrain is so unstable, geologists said.
The sheriff's department was contacting people to urge them to be ready for a quick evacuation and to sign up for a cellphone alert system. An automatic landline emergency alert system also is in place.
Energy companies have suspended operations in the area, and wells likely will be offline for an extended period, perhaps months, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.
White, the geologist, said he did not think drilling played a part in the slide.
Hilkey said he was contacted with offers of help and advice by officials in Washington state, where a March 22 landslide swept a square mile of dirt, sand and silt through a neighborhood in Oso, leveling homes and killing at least 43 people.
A slow but dramatic landslide occurred in April in the Wyoming resort town of Jackson, damaging a home and forcing evacuations. Nearly all homeowners have returned to the area after a massive effort to slow further movement there by dumping over 1 million tons of earth at the foot of the slide. Town officials are also contemplating long-term solutions.