2018 Aspen-area newsmakers: Locals made headlines that extended outside the valley
Looking back at 2018, there were plenty of people in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley who made news that extended beyond our neck of the woods.
From the Olympics in South Korea to putting pressure on politicians in Washington, D.C., there were newsmakers locally who made an impact outside of Colorado. And there were those whose work in the area made national headlines.
The staff of The Aspen Times put together our top five Newsmakers of 2018. Coming Tuesday, we’ll look at the top 10 stories of the year and what they will mean going into 2019.
SCOTT THOMPSON AND FIRST RESPONDERS
The summer of 2018 will be remembered in the midvalley as the Year of the Firefighters and other first responders for saving Basalt and El Jebel from the Lake Christine Fire.
The Basalt Fire Department and Chief Scott Thompson relied on help from departments throughout the Roaring Fork Valley on July 3 to prevent a fire from spreading at the point of origin at the Basalt State Wildlife Area shooting range to parts of Old Town Basalt. Then, over-extended firefighters got reinforcements from throughout the region July 4 to save El Jebel and Missouri Heights from the wind-whipped flames.
Federal air resources played a vital role on both days, then large federal firefighting teams took over the effort July 5. The Lake Christine Fire destroyed three houses and consumed 12,588 acres before it was out. An estimated 155 local firefighters were engaged in action. The number of federal firefighters varied but peaked at 550.
“Upon reflection, what stands out is the drought,” said Scott Thompson, fire chief of the Basalt Fire Department, which now has combined with the Snowmass Village department.
The low snowpack and lack of spring and summer rain created unusually dry conditions. Fire bans were put in place, the Pitkin County Emergency Management Team spent in excess of $50,000 on outreach, but Thompson still wonders, “Did we do enough?”
“We knew we were in trouble,” he said.
If drought persists in a warming climate, tough issues need to be addressed such as shutting down the shooting range and banning recreation uses in the national forest, he said.
For the firefighters, annual training in wildland fires, structure protection and safety will probably be more meaningful than ever after last summer’s experiences.
“We probably had some people who exceeded their training and experience,” Thompson said.
The department is using the experience to stock an extra trailer with everything from hose to protective clothing so it can be deployed wherever needed in the valley in response to a wildfire.
“We laid 3,500 feet of hose on the first day of the fire,” Thompson said. “We had nothing left.”
They were concerned of how they could respond if fire broke out elsewhere. Fortunately they were able to recover their hoses once federal fighters took up the battle.
On the critical night of July 4, well over 100 flares where shot by firefighters to intentionally burn vegetation between the El Jebel Mobile Home Park and approaching wildfire. It was a structure-saving decision.
“I hope this was a career event for me that won’t happen again,” Thompson said.
— Scott Condon
STEVE SKADRON, ASPEN MAYOR
It has been a tough year for Steve Skadron, whose initiatives have drawn the ire of many in the community.
But Skadron, in his sixth and final year as Aspen’s mayor, remains unshaken and unwavering in his positions regardless of the criticism they attract.
He said he believes the initiatives of 2018 are in line with what the majority of people want, and the notion that he is a newsmaker for this year either confirms that — or he’s made a small but loud base angry.
Such is Aspen politics.
“If I wasn’t included, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” Skadron said.
Whether it was the Castle Creek Bridge improvements that snarled traffic over four months, or the planning for next year’s mobility lab or the controversy over the city’s new logo, Skadron was the champion behind them.
He dug his heels in with the city offices debacle and made it known his displeasure with the two residents who sued the government in an attempt to stop the project.
Voters ultimately went with the city’s original plan to build 37,5000 square feet between Rio Grande Place and Galena Plaza over another option that involved taxpayers buying turnkey office space downtown.
Skadron was steadfast in his support for council to sign an $800,000 contract with Lyft to offer rideshares and alternative transit modes as part of a three-month experiment in the summer of 2019.
The cost of the mobility lab, called SHIFT, is upward of $3 million. Skadron is the prime elected official behind the program in hopes of changing people’s behavior and get them out of their cars.
Council ultimately voted against the Lyft contract due to opposition from local taxi and limo companies.
“I’ve learned that council responds to loudest voices in the room,” Skadron said of being in the minority.
— Carolyn Sackariason
MIKE KAPLAN, ASPEN SKIING CO.
Once again doubling down on their political positions in 2018, Mike Kaplan and the Aspen Skiing Co. made a call to action on climate change through their new “Give a Flake” campaign.
“We’re trying to say our lifestyle counts, our business counts,” Kaplan told the crowd gathered at the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain in September, when the campaign was revealed. “We need to be not only heard but to solve this problem.”
The Give a Flake campaign was a natural progression from Skico’s “Aspen Way” marketing mission in 2017-18, when the company declared “love, respect, unity and commit” in its promotional materials and media platforms.
The newest effort also helped cement Skico’s reputation for tackling environmental and political issues, even though critics have contended the company is merely posturing given the amount of fossil fuels it is responsible for through the tourism it generates.
A chief objective of the Give a Flake campaign is to put pressure on three Republican U.S. senators considered open-minded to fighting climate change — Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Murkowski even wrote the editors of Outside magazine, in response to a Give a Flake advertisement Skico took out in the publication, defending her record on climate change. Outside reported Nov. 27 the magazine’s fact-checking of the senator’s defense.
“While Murkowski appears to understand climate change and its impacts and has taken some steps to combat it, to date she has taken steps related only to innovation and energy savings, and she has been unwilling to make hydrocarbons more expensive or take other steps that would significantly address the problem,” Outside concluded.
Kaplan said the Give a Flake campaign emphasized action, activism and engagement.
“We’re trying to say, ‘Look, we need action. We’re all doing a lot individually to green up our open operations, green up our lifestyle, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We have got to curb emissions and get off this path that’s going to take legislative action that puts a price on carbon then unleashes the market forces and unleashes the technology that is already there.”
— Rick Carroll
ALEX FERREIRA, OLYMPIC MEDALIST
Alex Ferreira cemented his name in Aspen lore last winter when he joined a short list of Olympic medalists from the Roaring Fork Valley. The halfpipe skier had a breakthrough season, culminating in his silver-medal performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. An established pro with numerous X Games appearances, this was Ferreira’s Olympic debut.
“It’s been a lot, but as soon as July rolled around, that’s when I felt things start to calm down,” Ferreira said of his hectic lifestyle after winning his Olympic medal. “Now that I’ve reached this level, I want to enjoy it, as most people don’t get that opportunity.”
While the Olympics were the pinnacle, the now 24-year-old accomplished a lot more last year. He earned his best career win, taking gold at Dew Tour in Breckenridge (a title he recently defended), to go along with runner-up finishes at the Snowmass Grand Prix and X Games Aspen, a career-best result at the hometown event.
He capped it off by winning the season-long FIS World Cup globe in the discipline.
With all that success, Ferreira has found a new sense of calm during this competition season. The pressure now essentially off his shoulders, he’s enjoying his newfound stardom.
“I’ve kind of proven myself, so I have a little leeway now,” Ferreira said earlier this winter. “I’m just so much more relaxed. I don’t have this deep pit of anxiety wondering what is going to happen.”
Ferreira is slated to return to the X Games Aspen superpipe in late January.
— Austin Colbert
OK, so she’s technically not a local, but the weather impacts were felt around Aspen for the past 12 months.
From opening the year with one of the driest winters on record to ending December with some of the best early-season ski conditions in years, Mother Nature made her presence known more than usual this year.
While we’re still trying to forget the 2017-18 ski season that wasn’t, Mother Nature opened 2018 with little snow as comparisons quickly turned to the winter of 1976, which was one of the worst on record.
And those dry conditions had fire officials like Scott Thompson worried well before the Lake Christine Fire broke out. In early June, Thompson warned that fuel moisture levels “are as low as they’ve ever been recorded.” Fire restrictions were in place early in the summer, and moved to the more serious Stage 2 levels just days before the wildfire broke out.
The low snowpack also caused city of Aspen officials for the first time in history to enact mandatory Stage 2 watering restrictions in August.
The rafting and kayaking season took a hit as the runoff into local rivers topped out in May, nearly a month ahead of the usual time.
It was in October that the precipitation returned and allowed officials to call 100 percent containment on the Lake Christine Fire, which ironically was the same day that the two people accused of starting the fire were in Eagle County court.
Those October snow showers have continued into the last two months of the year, giving the local resorts twice the amount of snow than the same time as last year.
— David Krause
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.