On the Fly: Winter is coming, but the fish still eat every day
As we prepare for the winter season in the fly shop by putting gloves, jackets, capilene base layers, and hand warmers back on the shelves, it brings back fond memories of last winter.
Winter fishing is pretty special around here, as most of you are well aware. Crowds are thin to nonexistent, the fish pile up together in the deeper runs and pools, and those warm and cloudy days can often feel just as “buggy” as summer days do. The added distractions of saltwater trips, deer, elk, and duck hunting make this season one of our favorites.
The challenges we face on the water during winter aren’t that tough, if you know how to prepare and know what to expect. Fishing during these lean water times teaches you to “hunt” your fish, much like you would a turkey or deer. During summer, big water disguises our footfalls and false casts. Now is the time to go slow and be sneaky. Stay out of the water completely if possible, downsize your indicators, flies, and weight, as well as use the low water levels to your advantage and seek out the biggest fish in the run.
Staying warm and dry is another obvious challenge through the winter but easy to deal with when you plan ahead. If you live here, get dressed and rigged at home if possible. Putting on waders and rigging a rod in the wind and cold isn’t so fun; keep those waders and rods in your garage or mud room. Utilizing the many rod vaults available for your vehicle saves time and frustration, too. Get dressed and rigged at home, grab that rod out of the vault when you get to your spot, and go fish.
Two sets of dry gloves, a small towel, and perhaps a few hand and toe warmers can make or break your day when it’s cold. Timing changes in the winter – jokingly referred to as “Noon Patrol” – we focus on the warmest parts of the day. One good piece of advice is to keep an extra set of base layers in your vehicle in case you fall down in the river; there’s no shame in being dry and comfortable after a mishap. Finally, choose your battles out there. Go fishing when the weather works, and take advantage of the best temperatures the week has to offer when you can.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers euthanize mule deer after Friday attack in Aspen
A woman who was attacked by a mule deer buck on Friday in Aspen suffered minor injuries and is expected to be fine, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
Shortly after noon on Friday, Oct. 13, a woman was with a group on the basketball court at Rio Grande Park on North Mill Street when they were approached by a young mule deer buck.
According to a press release issued by CPW, the deer attacked the woman as she was trying to back away to give the deer space. She received minor injuries to her arms while shielding her face but declined medical attention.
After CPW wildlife officers were on the scene and able to investigate, it was determined that the victim did nothing to instigate the incident. Witnesses told officers that the deer had approached the group before the attack, suggesting that it was habituated to human presence and lacked fear commonly expected from wildlife.
Based on descriptions provided by witnesses, officers were able to locate and capture the deer. In the interest of public safety, CPW said that officers were left with no choice but to euthanize the deer due to its, “unusual and extremely aggressive behavior.”
According to CPW, while deer attacks are rare, they still can happen, posing the risk of serious injury. Additionally, CPW asks the public to give wildlife space, whether animals appear within town limits or otherwise and remember that feeding wildlife is always illegal, under any circumstance.
A federal government shutdown looms, here’s how it affects some RFV services
Gridlock in Washington has all but guaranteed a federal government shutdown starting on midnight Saturday.
The Roaring Fork Valley benefits from federal dollars and departments, and some of their most urgent uses — fighting wildfire and helping families secure food and childcare — could be affected by the shutdown.
Will federally-backed social programs like SNAP stay available?
In short, foot insecurity-related programs are in the most danger. As long as the shutdown is less than a month, serious interruption to benefits in other programs is unlikely.
Pitkin County Human Services Interim Director Sam Landercasper said programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are in the most danger of interruption.
“Starting this coming week of October, people who are expecting to get their monthly allocation for SNAP and WIC might not get that,” he said. “Folks who are low income — and especially in our region, where the cost of living is so high — folks who are receiving SNAP and Medicaid are very low income. So that’s a huge impact on their ability to provide food for their families.”
Pitkin County has about 260 people on SNAP, according to Landercasper. That number would be higher, he said, but with such a high local cost of living, many individuals don’t qualify for the program because their income is too high for federal standards.
He also noted that he believes WIC has a small contingency fund that could carry it through part of a shutdown, though he was not sure how long.
For folks on Medicaid, he said interruption will likely present in reimbursement to healthcare providers and not in care for patients.
For families who receive assistance to pay their childcare bills, the state of Colorado will continue to support the program, he said, through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program For Families.
And while most of this is uncertain, Landercasper noted that schools that received federal assistance for student lunches and Colorado Works, the state version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), could be impacted.
For families in need of food or support during the shutdown, he pointed to partners like LIFT-UP, Harvest for Hunger, and Food Bank of the Rockies. The county Human Services department also has limited City Market gift cards available and commodity bags meant to feed families for a few days until they can go to a food pantry.
Its office is open Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
“A month (-long shutdown) is kind of that cusp,” Landercasper said. “If we started to look at things going on longer than a month and you’re starting to see people not getting multiple sets of benefits, you’re starting to see areas where some of these reserve funds are running out and then those programs discontinue.”
What happens if a wildfire ignites on public land?
In short, someone — either a federal wildland firefighter team and/or a local fire department — will address any fire incident on public land during a shutdown.
The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs. Within that acreage, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District covers more than 700,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management also holds significant acreage in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Both departments retain their own firefighting teams, which respond to emergency calls and engage in prevention work like prescribed burns. And the firefighting community is a cooperative one, many interagency agreements and organizations exist to ensure resources are pooled to increase chances of success against wildfires.
According to Aspen Fire Protection District Chief Rick Balentine, federal firefighters are essential workers. They and their resources — like aerial firefighting aircraft — will be made available in the event of a wildfire.
“Federal firefighters are considered essential workers. So they continue working, even without pay, and they get caught up,” he said. “It happened once before. So really nothing changes in terms of response or readiness; it’s still the same.”
He does not recall if it was the 2018-2019 shutdown or sometime earlier that he worked with federal firefighters during a shutdown. But he said that non-emergency work like prescribed burns will not occur during a shutdown.
Acting Public Affairs Officer for the White River National Forest Olivia Blake said that all requests for comment are being routed through the Washington office for the U.S. Forest Service. That office did not respond to a request for comment by Friday evening.
Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Chief Rob Goodwin said that even if federal firefighters are furloughed or otherwise unavailable, his department will respond to incidents on public land as they always do.
“If (a fire on public land) happened, we would do our normal process. At the beginning, we would make sure we made the calls to the Grand Junction dispatch center and ours. And if there’s anybody that may be on call, at least they’re notified,” he said. “And then we will respond to it. And then we would order whatever appropriate mutual aid from our local and regional resources we thought needed to respond to mitigate that problem.”
He noted that fire departments from Summit County to Garfield County started a program called Mountain Area Mutual Aid, which provides a resource-sharing apparatus.
State-funded resources, like a Chinook helicopter based in Montrose, are also available for regional wildfire use. Glenwood Springs Fire Department used the Chinook in a recent wildfire event.
Carbondale fire gets AI cameras installed for early fire detection
Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District finally got to install their “eye in the sky” to help detect fires before they evolve into roaring infernos.
After delays in securing a helicopter, Pano AI cameras were installed atop a Pitkin County telecom tower on Elephant Mountain on Tuesday.
“We will now have the ability to use artificial intelligence to be notified early in the event of a wildfire in the Crystal River Valley,” said Mike Wagner, deputy chief at Carbondale Fire. “Carbondale Fire is really excited to have this technology on the Highway 133 corridor.”
The cameras provide a 360-degree view of a 15-mile radius. Artificial intelligence scans live images for signs of smoke and alerts a Pano AI team of analysts smoke appears visible. The analysts will confirm or deny the alert, then send along probably smoke alerts to the fire department.
Aspen Fire Department has four cameras within its district and was the first Colorado fire department to work with Pano AI.
Lahaina fire prompts Aspen-area emergency responders to prepare community for fire
Fire will happen. And we have to learn to live with it.
A panel of fire and public safety experts drove that message home on Wednesday evening at a public information meeting on wildfire preparedness and mitigation and emergency-response protocols.
The Aspen Fire Protection District decided to host the meeting after multiple community members reached out to the department with concerns over the fire that torched parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, particularly the town of Lahaina, earlier this month.
The 2018 Lake Christine Fire in El Jebel was the last major fire in the region, which burned more than 12,000 acres. The scar is still visible from Highway 82. And just earlier this season, the Spring Creek Fire near Parachute burned over 3,000 acres. Agencies partner on prescribed burns to mitigate risk and future effects of wildfires, but they’re just catching up after decades of fire suppression policy.
A crowd of about 100 people gathered in the apparatus bay, with more attending virtually, to learn more about the role of public officials in keeping the community safe, as well as their own responsibilities and opportunities in mitigating wildfire.
Panelists stressed that in the effort to keep the community safe, the onus is on community members. And to do so, residents should:
Have a thorough, household evacuation plan
Know the location of nearby areas of refuge (spacious, well-irrigated spaces; low-combustibility infrastructure like a parking garage)
Harden homes and neighborhoods against fire
“One thing we really want to stress tonight is the absolute importance of hardening your home,” Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said to the crowd. “You can make your home more fire safe, and you can make your neighbor’s home more fire safe by hardening your (home), as well.”
Hardening your home means reducing its vulnerability to wildfire. Strategies include removing fire fuels close to the house or improving the structural integrity of the home to be more fire resilient.
Aspen Fire offers free, wildfire-mitigation assessments for private residences and neighborhoods. A firefighter will come to the property to evaluate the risk and give recommendations on how to best harden the home or maintain areas of refuge and protect evacuation routes for subdivisions.
According to Ali Hammond, the director of community wildfire resilience, if a firefighter determines a large tree on a property as a wildfire risk, Pitkin County will waive the permit fee to remove the tree.
The department also offers a wildfire-risk map, a community chipping program, and other educational resources.
“Community resilience means living with wildfire and proactively reducing its destructive consequences,” she said.
Communication and readiness was another major piece of wildfire preparedness discussed by the panelists, especially in worst-case-scenario events.
“One of the big things in evacuation where things start to go wrong is with the communications,” said Parker Lathrop, the chief deputy of operations with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
The county offers a variety of alert systems for residents to be aware of emergencies as soon as possible, including the text/email notification systems Pitkin Alert and Reach Well, with translation to 100+ languages available.
But he cautioned against relying only on notification systems, as telecom infrastructure could fail in a wildfire.
“Take safety into your own hands,” he said to the crowd. “If you feel the need to evacuate, go ahead and don’t wait for the alert.”
Here are a few wildfire questions answered and rumors confirmed or debunked by panelists, which included representatives from Aspen Fire, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Aspen Police Department, U.S. Forest Service, the Red Cross, and West Mountain Regional COAD (Community Organizations Active in Disaster):
What is the evacuation plan for the City of Aspen?
Basically, it’s an impossible question to answer without knowing the circumstances of the wildfire or other emergency.
“We have done evacuation planning before: What if we have to evacuate everything? And, frankly, it’s not pretty,” said Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn. “We don’t have a lot of infrastructure in terms of roadways and exit strategies to get out of (Aspen).”
He went on to say that most likely, all inbound traffic lanes would be turned to outbound to speed up traffic. Where that traffic pattern would end is still unclear. Deputy Lathrop of the Sheriff’s Office stressed that vehicles would have to stay on the road to maintain the safety and viability of bike paths for those who evacuate via bike or foot.
The Pitkin County Hazard Mitigation Plan is available on the emergency manager’s webpage. It was authored in conjunction with the City of Aspen, Town of Basalt, Town of Snowmass Village, Aspen Fire, and Roaring Fork Fire Protection District.
And Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that the board of commissioners granted Sheriff’s Office access to an emergency fund of about $100,000 for immediate use in a wildfire. That funding could help to immediately secure something like a helicopter for aerial firefighting.
Should residents turn on lawn sprinklers and leave them running in the event of a wildfire evacuation?
No. Rural water infrastructure cannot handle that kind of demand, according to Aspen Fire Wildfire Battalion Chief Jim Spaulding.
Are first responders working with Holy Cross Energy to mitigate power line ignition risk?
Yes. “We are in direct communication with (Holy Cross),” said Sheriff Michael Buglione. “They’re part of our Public Safety Council. (Shutting off a power line near a fire) is a matter of — literally — pulling the switch.”
Preventative power shut-offs before an active fire seemed untenable, he noted, as most Holy Cross customers presumably would not want their power cut “just in case.”
And finally, What’s more likely to set your house on fire? A lightning strike or an ember from a wildfire a mile away?
The full meeting, with many more questions and answers, is available to view online.
Looking for a treat for your pet in Snowmass Village? Head over to GuapoDog
Nestled in Snowmass Mall is GuapoDog, a local, pet-supply store serving the Snowmass community with all their pet-supply needs.
The store opened in 2021 but has been under new ownership, Snowmass villager Anna Todovich, since April. This is the store’s third summer in business, and she’s been there every step of the way, even before she became the owner.
“I’ve always been a huge pet lover and grew up in a household around a lot of animals,” she said. “The pieces fell together at the right time, and I had a lot of encouragement and amazing support from some particularly close friends.”
Though she doesn’t have any dogs at the moment, she is the proud owner of one cat named Chalupa Batman.
“The pet store kind of gives me my fill (of dogs),” she said, adding that she hopes to add a new pup to her family not too far in the distance.
GuapoDog caters primarily towards dogs and cats. They carry a wide variety of dog and cat foods, treats, toys, and accessories in the lively, colorful store.
Todovich said one of the highlights of the store is the Biscuit Bar, a dog’s version of a coffee bar.
“It’s a great way for people to stop in and get their dog a treat or something if they’re up in the mall,” she said. “People can grab a drink and a little snack for their dogs before heading out on a trail.”
From life jackets for water-loving dogs to organic CBD for scaredy-cats, GuapoDog has everything a pet owner could need.
“I really worked hard to keep the store a hybrid between both a traditional pet store and a boutique store. So you can get everything from the daily functional items, like waste bags or dog wipes to the fancy and unique finds. I spend a lot of time picking out and trying to find unique stuff,” she said.
Todovich does her best to cater to her customers. She said if there are specific items a pet owner is looking for that she doesn’t carry, she tries to start carrying that item to make it easy for pet owners to get the supplies they need.
“We have a huge pet-loving community here, and I think, especially being a small store, it makes it easier to have that one-on-one connection with customers. I’m able to engage with the people that come in and get to know their pets and their pets’ names, and it’s been really neat,” she said.
The store will be open daily from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. during the off-season for all the locals who want to stop by and grab a treat for their beloved pets.
Even with a wildfire burning near Parachute, data directs Roaring Fork sheriffs to hold off on bans
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story reported that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office instituted a fire ban from May 31 to July 5. That is incorrect. The ordinance passed by the county commissioners Wednesdaygranted the authority to institute a ban throughout 2023 to the Sheriff’s Office, with special emphasis on May 31- July 5. The article has been updated to reflect that change.
A snowy winter and a wet spring bring flowers — and fuel for wildfires. A major wildfire is still burning near Parachute. But across the Roaring Fork Valley, sheriffs and counties are waiting to institute fire bans until data indicates that they should do so, while still cautioning the public.
“The wet spring and the great snowpack we had simply did nothing but delay wildfire season,” said Pitkin County emergency manager Valerie MacDonald. “This is a special year. We’re having high water days and fire season.”
For unincorporated Pitkin County, the board of commissioners passed an emergency ordinance to allow the Sheriff’s Office to prohibit the sale, use, and possession of fireworks and to ban open fires.
“The recent rain and green up of our area has painted an inaccurate picture. We are still at great risk,” said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta. “Actually, during conversation this morning with our public safety council, (they) indicated that the grass is what they call fine fuel and is rapidly drying out in the midvalley and working its way upvalley.”
The ordinance grants the Sheriff’s Office authority to institute a ban throughout 2023, and names May 31 to July 5 as a period of special focus due to 4th of July celebrations. Burchetta noted that not bringing the ban to the commissioners sooner was an oversight. The backdate on the resolution is a reflection of that mistake.
Emergency ordinances go into effect immediately as opposed to the normal 30-day delay after passage by the commissioners.
Commissioner Steve Child noted that a constituent emailed him asking why the county would even consider instituting a fireworks and fire ban after such a wet winter and spring. And he said he has seen firsthand how quickly the damp soil changed under hot, dry, windy weather.
“As an irrigator, I will vouch for the fact that the ground has dried out incredibly fast and in places that we have not come to irrigate on yet. It’s hard to push water across the field already,” Child said. “In spite of all the rain we had this spring, which was wonderful, it has just dried out incredibly quickly.”
Still, MacDonald said the county is not yet seeing conditions and metrics strong enough to constitute a fire ban, though they are keeping watch as the weather gets hotter and drier.
And the rapidly-changing weather has threatened river recreators, as well. High levels from the snowpack have created fun, yet potentially dangerous conditions for kayakers or anyone else who ventures into the valley’s rivers.
She and the commissioners urged tourists and locals to be realistic about their skill level and not take unnecessary risks.
When to say ‘no fires’
The Spring Creek Fire is burning just southwest of Parachute in Garfield County. As of Friday morning, the fire is 21% contained and sized at 2,910 acres.
Garfield County Emergency Manager Chris Bornholdt said that his county has not yet instituted a fire ban, and they based that decision at least partially on the Energy Release Component, a metric for measuring fire risk. Pitkin County also uses the ERC in its determination of whether or not to institute a fire ban, a decision made in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The Forest Service defines the ERC as“an output of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS). The ERC is a number related to the available energy (BTU) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a fire.”
Bornholdt directed questions to Garfield County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Walt Stowe for further questions. Stowe said that a decision on whether or not to institute a ban is expected Friday or Saturday.
In Pitkin County, chief deputy of operations Parker Lathrop explained that part of the reason why there is no fire ban is the differing geography between the elevations.
“There’s different fuel models for different areas and specific to what we have up here with our fuel models — that’s our makeup of aspens and the grass that we have — we’re not at that heightened risk. When you look down in Garfield County at what’s burning and what isn’t burning, they have their elevation change,” Lanthrop said. “Their geography varies pretty widely across their county. Where the fire is burning … it’s a finer fuel. Cheatgrass is the main body of their ground fuels and we don’t have that up here in our elevation.”
But not all counties and sheriffs’ offices go by the Energy Release Component. Eagle County passed an ordinance in 2019 that states Red Flag Fire Warnings automatically trigger Stage 1 Fire Restrictions.
Right now, there is no such restriction in Eagle County. But that does not mean Fourth of July celebrators can light fireworks in their backyard, due to state law.
“Unless we have some extreme circumstances, like an active fire requiring the attention of our fire departments, we will have professional fireworks shows in Eagle County this year,” said Eagle County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Ashley LaFleur. “Please leave the fireworks to the professionals. Colorado law prohibits personal fireworks that explode or leave the ground. If you’re caught using these, you could get a ticket.”
Aspen prepares for Fourth of July and wildfire potential
On Wednesday, in anticipation of Fourth of July celebrations, the City of Aspen reaffirmed its commitment to their Street Smart campaign — a concerted cross-departmental effort to ensure public safety and promote sustainable practices.
This initiative is a partnership among the city’s engineering department, Aspen Police, and the city’s parks department, aiming to heighten pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Police Chief Kim Ferber emphasized the significance of the campaign during this period.
“As we approach our largest event of the year, the Street Smart campaign becomes even more critical. We are enhancing road safety, improving city-wide connectivity, and educating the public to promote predictable behaviors on our roads, bike lanes, and trails,” she said.
The City of Aspen is also urging residents and visitors to utilize public transportation or consider biking to Fourth of July events. This approach not only enhances personal safety, but also helps reduce traffic congestion and contributes to Aspen’s ongoing sustainability efforts.
“I want to emphasize its significance: It isn’t merely a campaign — it’s a reflection of our communal values,” said William Porter, the city of Aspen’s brand-new communications director who started earlier this month.
He added, “We’re all stewards of Aspen’s safety, whether as pedestrians, cyclists, or drivers. Through clear, pro-active communication, we aim to foster a culture of respect on our streets and trails. Our shared responsibility today will shape a safer, more inclusive Aspen tomorrow.”
Six days after a wildfire broke out near Parachute, the community of Aspen is facing what could become a very long and worrisome fire season.
Luckily, no structures have been threatened or lost, and no injuries reported thus far in the Garfield County blaze.
“Very little, if any forest land has burned at all,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest. “We’re still pretty wet, muddy, and even snowy in places on the forest. The fire burned to about 9,000 feet and not higher. We expect more activity at the lower elevations on BLM and private land.”
Upvalley, though, the community is preparing.
“Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH) regularly evaluates hazards and risks to AVH, our patients, and the community in an ongoing effort to be prepared for managing emergencies. Wildfires have been identified as one of our greatest threats,” said Dave Ressler, CEO of AVH. “By learning from the wildfire and evacuation experiences of other hospitals in Colorado and California over the past several years, and in cooperation with our public safety partners and neighboring hospitals such as Valley View Hospital, AVH has developed plans for the potential evacuation of patients in the event that a wildfire threatens our facilities in Aspen, Snowmass and the midvalley.”
He noted that the best plans, however, are prevention and mitigation.
The Aspen Fire Department trains the vast majority of their staff on how to combat wildfires and have several apparatuses dedicated to fighting wildfires.
“We also have AI cameras strategically placed at areas of good vantage points to alert us of any smoke. Most of these cameras can even see the Spring Creek Fire, even though it’s 50 miles away,” said Jacob Andersen, deputy chief of operations for the Aspen Fire Department.
He explained that they have incident command scenarios where they build out a wildfire preplan and execute different scenarios for how to attack a wildfire.
There are no fireworks allowed in Aspen for the July 4th celebration, which is a long-term plan of the city’s agenda; instead, there is an evening laser show. Aspen Fire Department was also working throughout the week to clear downed trees from beetle kill around the city and surrounding area.
“For us, while we have had a wet winter and spring with decent snowpack, fire season is certainly here,” said Andersen. “Pay close attention to your home ignition zone, and have an evacuation plan in place, a ‘go’ bag ready, and a meeting place established.”
He recommends visiting aspenfire.com/wildfire for resources and up-to-date information.
“People should sign up for Pitkin County alerts and for those who do not read English can use the app ReachWell that can translate messages into multiple languages,” he added.
For visitors, it’s also helpful to sign up for county alerts while visiting Aspen.
“If you’re staying in a vacation rental, make sure the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are functional,” said Andersen.
Wildfires in Colorado are growing more unpredictable; officials have ignored the warnings
Sheriff’s deputies driving 45 mph couldn’t outpace the flames. Dense smoke, swirling dust and flying plywood obscured the firestorm’s growth and direction, delaying evacuations.
Within minutes, landscaped islands in a Costco parking lot in Superior, Colorado, caught fire as structures became the inferno’s primary fuel. It consumed the Element Hotel, as well as part of a Tesla service center, a Target and the entire Sagamore neighborhood. Across a six-lane freeway, in the town of Louisville, flames rocketed through parks and climbed wooden fences, setting homes ablaze. They spread from one residence to the next in a mere eight minutes, reaching temperatures as high as 1,650 degrees.
On Dec. 30, 2021, more than 35,000 people in Superior and Louisville, as well as unincorporated Boulder County, fled the fire — some so quickly they left barefoot and without their pets. Firefighters abandoned miles of hose in neighborhood driveways to escape.
The Marshall Fire, the most destructive in Colorado history, killed two people and incinerated 1,084 residences and seven businesses within hours. Financial losses are expected to top $2 billion.
The blaze showed that Colorado and much of the West face a fire threat unlike anything they have seen. No longer is the danger limited to homes adjacent to forests. Urban areas are threatened, too.
Yet despite previous warnings of this new threat, ProPublica found Colorado’s response hasn’t kept pace. Legislative efforts to make homes safer by requiring fire-resistant materials in their construction have been repeatedly stymied by developers and municipalities, while taxpayers shoulder the growing cost to put out the fires and rebuild in their aftermath.
Many residents are unaware they are now at risk because federal and state wildfire forecasts and maps also haven’t kept pace with the growing danger to their communities. Indeed, some wildland fire forecasts model urban areas as “non-burnable,” even though the Marshall Fire proved otherwise.
The disaster put an exclamation point on what scientists, planners and federal officials warned for years: Communities outside the traditional wildland-urban interface, or WUI, are now vulnerable as a changing climate, overgrown forests and explosive development across the West fuel ever-unpredictable fire behavior. Fire experts define the WUI, pronounced woo-ee, as areas where plants such as trees, shrubs and grasses are near, or mixed with, homes, power lines, businesses and other human development.
They now agree that instead of a threat confined to the WUI, the entire state, including areas far from forests, may be at risk of a conflagration.
“The Marshall Fire was a horrible, tragic event that served as a wake-up call for the rest of our state,” said state Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Democrat who represents mountain and foothill areas. “I don’t think we realized how much wildfire could impact communities that aren’t deep in the forest — it’s not something any of us are immune to.”
An early warning of the growing danger to suburban communities arrived in 2001. That year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies identified scores of Colorado municipalities adjacent to public lands as being at high risk of a wildland blaze-turned-urban conflagration. Some of these areas burned in the Marshall Fire.
A decade later, in 2012, another warning came, as an unprecedented weather-driven inferno, the Waldo Canyon Fire, destroyed several Colorado Springs neighborhoods.
Afterward, fire experts urged state lawmakers to adopt a model building code that communities in high-risk areas could enact. Such codes have been scientifically proven to reduce risk for residents and rescuers and to increase the odds structures will withstand a blaze by requiring fire-resistant materials on siding, roofs, decks and fences, along with mesh-covered vents that prevent embers from entering.
But lawmakers bowed to pressure from building and real estate lobbyists as well as municipal officials who demanded local control over private property.
Meanwhile, the number of new homes built in Colorado’s WUI — as defined by researchers several years ago — more than doubled between 1990 and 2020. And nationwide, the WUI is growing by 2 million acres a year. Homes in 70,000 communities worth $1.3 trillion are now within the path of a firestorm, according to a June report from the U.S. Fire Administration that featured photos of the Marshall Fire’s destruction.
In the months that followed the Marshall Fire, there were again calls to consider a statewide building code. A last-minute amendment to a fire mitigation bill in May would have created a board to develop statewide building rules, but it was pulled after builders, real estate agents, municipalities and others opposed it.
It wasn’t the first time the state’s powerful building industry asserted its influence over policy. Whenever a wildfire bill comes to the state legislature, well-heeled lobbyists routinely represent the industry, records kept by the Colorado secretary of state show. The state’s culture of local control and the construction industry’s $25 billion annual contribution to the economy hampered lawmakers’ ability to find middle ground on a minimum statewide building code.
ProPublica’s review of legislation introduced from 2014 to 2022 found only 15 out of 77 wildfire-related bills focused primarily on helping homeowners mitigate their risk from fires. Most of the 15 proposals offered incentives to homeowners and communities through income tax deductions or grants — some of which required municipalities to raise matching funds — to clear vegetation around structures.
None called for mandatory building requirements in wildfire-prone areas, even as 15 of the 20 largest wildfires in state history have occurred since 2012.
The lack of uniform regulations has cost the Centennial State millions in federal grant money: The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the state grants from the agency’s resilient infrastructure funds, which from fiscal 2020 to 2022 totaled $101 million.
Colorado remains one of only eight states without a minimum construction standard for homes.
Municipalities Weigh Prevention and Its Cost
Developers have also influenced municipalities’ recent decisions, as homes decimated by the Marshall Fire are rebuilt in Boulder County, and the cities of Superior and Louisville located within it. The debate has reflected difficult tradeoffs between the cost of making homes more fire-resistant — particularly in an era of high inflation and unpredictable supply chains — and residents’ tolerance for risk.
Lawmakers in Louisville, where 550 homes and businesses burned, voted to remove a fire sprinkler requirement for homes, citing cost, despite evidence such systems reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by 80%. The City Council also voted to allow residents to choose whether to follow new energy efficiency requirements estimated to add $5,000 to $100,000 to the cost of a new home.
By contrast, in unincorporated Boulder County, which lost 157 homes to the Marshall Fire, commissioners in June voted to require fire-resistant materials on all new and renovated homes. Before the inferno, the eastern grasslands were exempt. (Mountain residents, who since 1989 have been required to follow mitigation practices, have seen the effectiveness of such codes: Eight out of 10 of their homes survived the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010.)
In Superior, which lost 378 structures, the Board of Trustees voted down a proposed citywide WUI building code in May. After residents of the leveled Sagamore neighborhood requested they revisit their decision, trustees reconsidered in July.
The financial pressures facing Superior officials and their constituents were evident as they considered whether to require fire-resistant materials solely for homes destroyed by the Marshall Fire or for the entire city.
“This is all a huge cost we cannot bear,” said Robert Lousberg, a resident who wants to rebuild several homes. “I understood this is a once-in-a-lifetime fire.”
Some neighbors disagreed.
“Sagamore burned down in less than an hour — one of my neighbors ended up in the hospital after trying to escape the fire on foot — that’s the main reason we need these codes, to slow the spread of fire,” Dan Cole said. “We have an opportunity to build a more fire-resistant neighborhood right now, and it would be foolish and short sighted not to take it.”
Builders estimated that costs for tempered-glass windows, fire-resistant siding and other materials could reach $5,500 to $30,000 per home. Procuring the materials and labor to install them could delay rebuilding.
Like residents, town trustees were divided about whether the cost outweighed safety benefits to residents and first responders should there be another conflagration.
“To me, it’s unconscionable to have people rebuilding in an unsafe manner,” said Trustee Laura Skladzinski, who did not seek reelection last month. “I would rather have residents pay $20,000 now. If they cannot afford it, how are they going to be able to afford it when their house burns down?”
Some noted that most residents didn’t have enough insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding their homes.
Trustee Neal Shah said the city should have adopted tougher codes after the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, which prompted calls for a voluntary statewide building code that communities could institute requiring fire-resistant materials in homes.
“I fundamentally believe in WUI standards,” Shah said, “what I can’t solve is the math.”
The body voted 5-1 to institute the code, then added an opt-out clause for those rebuilding their residences.
Colorado Springs Fire Foreshadowed the Risks
A decade before the Marshall Fire, a blaze was burning in the mountains above Colorado Springs on a 101-degree June day. That afternoon a thunderstorm caused a sudden shift in the wind, pushing a wall of burning debris out of the Rocky Mountain foothills into the state’s second-largest city.
Firefighters fled the 750-foot-high fire front — as tall as a 53-floor building — as it chewed through pine, pinyon and juniper dried by a record-hot spring. Sixty-mile-per-hour gusts peeled back the door on a fire truck. Fist-sized embers rained down on the city’s Mountain Shadows community. The fire incinerated 79 homes per hour, or 1.3 per minute, over 5 ½ hours, a report found.
In the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed 347 homes and killed two people, Colorado Springs drew lessons from which residences had survived and capitalized on fresh memories of burned neighborhoods to institute tougher building requirements.
Standing recently in the shade of a still-scorched tree behind her home, Patty Johnson described how her house was relatively unscathed, even as eight of her neighbors lost their residences. She credited ignition-resistant materials, including stucco walls, siding, a composite deck and a concrete tile roof. Drought-resistant landscaping also helped. Her family sold the home in September to move into a smaller place in the city.
After-action reports found neighbors’ work clearing vegetation around homes helped firefighters save 82% of residences in the 28-square-mile burn area.
FEMA estimated that minimal expenditures to protect Colorado Springs neighborhoods had paid off. In Cedar Heights, $300,000 in mitigation had prevented about $77 million in losses.
“The Waldo Canyon Fire was shocking, but it could have been so much worse if the city of Colorado Springs had not spent decades getting ready,” said Molly Mowery, co-founder of the Community Wildfire Planning Center.
Even so, the fire reached 2,000 degrees and moved so fast it incinerated some homes with fire-resistant material and fire-proof safes inside.
Nevertheless, the city followed a 30-year pattern and took its lessons to heart to institute additional building requirements to fortify homes in wildfire-prone areas. Timing was everything, Mowery’s nonprofit concluded in a recently released analysis.
The city had done the same in 2002. With smoke still in the air following the Hayman Fire — which started about 35 miles northwest of the city and destroyed 600 structures — a coalition of fire officials, homeowners’ associations and local builders and roofing contractors devised rules that banned wood roofs on all new homes and repairs greater than 25% of the total roof area.
Similarly, after the Waldo Canyon Fire, as heavy machinery cleared charred neighborhoods, the city updated its code to increase the distance trees had to be from homes and require fire protection systems, ignition-resistant siding and decks, and double-paned windows for all new or reconstructed homes in hillside areas.
Fire officials used spatial technology to hone the city’s definition of the WUI. The tool identified a 32,655-acre area — one of the largest high-risk regions in the United States. The city recruited homeowners to educate neighbors in the threatened area about fire-resistant practices.
Peer pressure worked, said Ashley Whitworth, wildfire mitigation program administrator at the Colorado Springs Fire Department. If a homeowner’s property is flagged red on the city’s online risk assessment map (denoting it needs work), neighbors reach out to learn why they haven’t completed mitigation.
Colorado Springs’ voters overwhelmingly approved the allocation of $20 million in city funds toward incentives to gird wildfire-prone properties.
Days after the vote in November 2021, the Marshall Fire unfolded 90 miles to the north across communities with little history of wildfire mitigation.
Scientists, some of whom lived in Boulder County and were evacuated, proclaimed it a “climate fire.” They cited the extreme weather that preceded it: Abnormally high levels of snow and rain in spring and summer had nurtured abundant 4-foot grasses that baked to a crisp during a historically dry fall. Chinook winds blasted the region for an unusual nine-hour period and propelled the firestorm. And even though there’s growing understanding that fire season is now year-round, no one believed a December blaze could ravage entire cities.
While it began as a wildfire in grassland, once it reached nearby communities it transformed into an urban conflagration — the type of fire that destroyed Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco in 1906 and that until the early 20th century consumed more property than any other type of natural disaster.
“Was this a wildland fire or an urban fire?” Sterling Folden, deputy chief of the Mountain View Fire Protection District, asked during a July legislative committee meeting. “I had five fire trucks in the entire downtown of Superior — I had 20 blocks on fire — I usually have that many for one house on fire.”
Whitworth, of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, said there were more lessons to learn about the threat of wildfire.
“The Marshall Fire was a really big hit for people here because it happened in December and it happened just like that,” Whitworth said. “Everyone said to me, ‘It could happen here,’ and I said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”
Is the Entire State Now Vulnerable to Wildfire?
With the 2023 legislative session days away, fire chiefs, county commissioners, scientists and planners are once again calling on Colorado lawmakers to institute statewide rules that mandate fire-resistant materials in high-risk areas.
Cutter, who will be sworn in as a state senator in January, is developing a bill that would require the state to create a WUI code board to write minimum fire-resistant building requirements. It’s patterned in part after the amendment that failed at the Capitol this spring.
Such laws save lives, said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The 36-year fire service veteran cited studies from the nonprofit Fire Safety Research Institute and the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology showing that building codes work.
“Firefighters take extraordinary risk to protect lives and property,” he added. “If we start building communities and structures out of materials more resistive to fire, we are upping our odds of success — we’ve got to do something different and do it better.”
The insurance industry is also warning that if Colorado lawmakers and communities don’t reinforce homes against wildfire, mounting claims from blazes could put premiums out of reach for many. The industry supports a statewide building code.
“Unlike other disasters, wildfire is one of those risks there is much we can do from a mitigation standpoint to put odds at least in favor of that home surviving,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
“We’ve got to get it done,” she added. “Colorado right now is at … a tipping point with concerns about keeping insurance here and keeping insurance available.”
But such rules won’t be adopted without a compromise among local control advocates, builders and fire officials.
Construction industry representatives who met with Cutter and Morgan recently said builders are wary of one-size-fits-all requirements imposed by the state. Together with the insurance industry and municipal governments, they have met the past few months seeking to influence the bill’s language.
“It’s important to make sure we match codes with risk,” said Ted Leighty, chief executive of the Colorado Association of Home Builders. His members “are not opposed to talking about what a code board might look like — if we were to adopt a model code that local governments could adopt to match their communities’ needs.”
The idea for such a board emerged after the Colorado Fire Commission received a letter from Gov. Jared Polis in July 2021.
The first-term Democrat, who was reelected in November, sent the missive following conflagrations in 2020 that exhibited unimaginable fire behavior: The 193,812-acre East Troublesome Fire traveled 25 miles overnight and incinerated 366 homes; and the 208,913-acre Cameron Peak Fire, which torched 461 structures, burned for four months despite firefighters’ efforts.
Polis wrote that legislators in 2021 had failed to “address a critical piece of the wildfire puzzle in Colorado: land use planning, development and building resiliency in the wildland-urban interface.”
Instead, lawmakers focused on fire response, restoration of burned lands and voluntary mitigation by communities.
In answer to Polis’ missive, a little-known subcommittee, which included state, county and city fire officials, met between August 2021 and April. The 51-member group agreed it’s time to rethink which communities are prone to wildfire, offering a new definition of the WUI: The group concluded “almost the entire state of Colorado falls within the WUI,” according to minutes from a Feb. 10 meeting, “which could make a strong argument for adopting a minimum code.”
Fire officials also countered the long-held belief that communities favor local control over building requirements. They pointed to a 2019 law that established a minimum energy code that local jurisdictions must adopt when they update local building codes. About 86% of the state’s 5 million residents now live in a community that mandates such measures.
“There is minimal evidence that people voluntarily regulate themselves,” committee members concluded, according to minutes of their Feb. 28 meeting.
Rebuilding Like Before
A report on the Marshall Fire released in October by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control noted how wooden fences abutting grasslands had accelerated the blaze’s spread, leading flames from the grass directly to homes. Firefighters also described fence pickets flying past at 80 mph and landing to start new fires.
This month, as homes were being rebuilt on Cherrywood Lane in Louisville, in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, evidence remained of first responders’ frantic efforts to cut down fences to prevent them from spreading flames to neighboring homes.
New homes are going up across the 9-square-mile burn zone. A recent drive through the area revealed many are being rebuilt with the same kinds of fences. With no building code dictating that the fences be made of fire-resistant materials, homeowners are using flammable materials that have been standard in the past, unaware it will again put them at risk in the next blaze.
Wooden fences such as these touch homes and grasslands in communities up and down the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Rebuilding without ignition-resistant barriers leaves the homes vulnerable to the next climate-driven wildfire, said Morgan, the state fire chief.
This month, with snow on the ground and temperatures in the 40s, another blaze ignited not far from where the Marshall Fire burned. Thirty-five-mile-per-hour winds spread the flames and forced evacuations before the threat subsided.
“I’ve heard people say the Marshall Fire was just a fluke,” he said. “I would disagree — there are literally thousands of communities along the Front Range of the Rockies from Canada to New Mexico subject to these Chinook winds multiple times a year, and when the conditions are right this can happen.”
Wildland fire in Glenwood Canyon snuffed out
Fire crews worked quickly and successfully contained a blaze in Glenwood Canyon on Tuesday afternoon.
Crews were mopping up by Tuesday evening and had kept the fire at about quarter-acre in size.
Glenwood Springs Fire Marshal Greg Bak said the report came in at 2:50 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. The fire site is located south of the Colorado River near the railway pass, he said.
Wind gusts are currently 25-45 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
“That’s certainly not going to help,” Bak said. “It’s going to be an issue, but our crews are on it, so that’s a positive note.”
BURN PERMITS CANCELED
Due to dry conditions and high winds, all burn permits within Glenwood Springs and the Glenwood Springs Fire District are being placed on hold for the foreseeable future, Glenwood Springs Fire Marshal Bak said.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com