Tony Vagneur: 1900 fires a good lesson in getting right for a hot, dry 2021

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Just a few weeks ago, the Forest Service conducted a controlled burn over in Collins Creek. Good for them — that neighborhood and others are being choked by accumulated deadfall, mature and dying jack-oaks, stale grass, and other debris. In a drought year, like this one, it’s a dangerous game to play, but the Forest Service has the skill and experience to pull it off.

When I was a young boy, my grandfather and I were riding the Collins Creek area, keeping an eye on our cattle there. As we came through a clearing on the side of the mountain, we were confronted by numerous burned-out stumps, something I had never seen before. “It was a forest fire, a long time ago, that burned for several years,” Grandpa said.

Since then, those blackened stumps, the last vestiges of long-ago forest fires, deteriorated, toppled and fell, until they were mostly invisible to the inexperienced eye. (Such remnant stumps can still sometimes be seen in various areas surrounding the valley.) I used to occasionally ride through there, a place we call the “Boiler Set,” partially to relive that day with Gramps. Carl Bergman likely didn’t know it, but there’s an old boiler lying there, used to power a sawmill in days gone by.

As we press forward into what looks to be another dry summer, one of possible extreme drought, it is good to look back at history to give our current bearings a foundation from which to put things in perspective.

The fire to which Gramps referred happened around the turn of the century, 1890s to 1902, or so. Those were years of big forest fires in the Collins Creek and Woody Creek areas, but Keno and Queen’s Gulches (well-known out-of-bounds ski descents) east of Castle Creek were not exempted, either. Also, think the Big Burn at Snowmass.

Prior to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, there were a plethora of sawmills in the Aspen-Woody Creek areas, many of them providing timbers for the mines, but lumber was also needed for the burgeoning housing demand, as well as stove fuel.

In 1902, embers from the Varney mine smokestack in Lenado started a fire, which burned 2,000 or 3,000 acres. Later that year, the Larry Maroney sawmill near Silver Creek caught fire and was destroyed. Sawyers were forced to flee in front of the flames, trying to bury provisions and carrying blankets on their backs against the cold nights they expected to find, being forced to sleep out in the cold forest overnight.

Three men were unaccounted for from this exodus, and it was feared they were dead but, fortunately, they turned up safe the next day. Rather than flee with the rest of the crew, they had detoured around the fire and did their best to fight it from another direction. Between the lost equipment, housing and valuable timber, Maroney calculated total losses to be around $200,000. In 1902 dollars.

According to the Aspen Democrat Times, July 1900 was the driest ever experienced in the Aspen area, and foretold of a busy August concerning forest fires. The same paper on Aug. 17, 1900, talking about the Keno and Queen’s Gulch fires, reported with an almost jaded pen: “Other fires surrounding Aspen are still burning, but seemingly with not much force.”

As we head into the summer of 2021, we need to be vigilant about fire danger and drought, not just in our area, but on the entire Western Slope. We’ve been on the short end of precipitation the past few years and the snowmelt, rather than coming down the rivers, is being largely absorbed by the thirsty ground. Will we have high water yet this year?

Already, near Steamboat, a portion of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir has been closed to fishing. The runoff shortage has resulted in higher water temperatures, making life tough for the fish. This is apt to be a harbinger of things to come as summer progresses.

Wild horse herds on the Western Slope are currently in danger of succumbing to a lack of drinking water, plus it might be a bad year for grass. This in turn will affect range permits for cattle producers, affecting a large part of our economy.

Fire danger has the potential to be extremely high, with fire restrictions in place early on. There’s a lot of fuel in our neighborhood that hasn’t been torched in a very long time.

We could be negative about this, or face it head-on. Be damned careful out there in the wild with flammables and remember it takes only a spark to start a wildfire. It might be a good summer for rainmakers to limber up their miraculous equipment and for the rest of us to do a few rain dances.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at