Editor who lost home in fire doesn’t stop presses
COLORADO SPRINGS — Three days after she lost everything, Judy von Ahlefeldt’s newspaper rolled off the presses like it has for the last 53 years.
Nothing stops the Black Forest News.
Gone was her home of 43 years, her beloved mustang, Monty, and years of research on Black Forest. But the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history could not take away the Black Forest News and Palmer Divide Pioneer.
Von Ahlefeldt, 70, knows everything about Black Forest. Absolutely everything. She even knew about the fire first.
“I knew about the fire before most people did because one of my friends called me at 2 p.m. telling me she saw smoke,” she said. “I went around taking pictures for about an hour and then I went home. When I saw how bad it was blowing up, I started packing up.”
Instead of family photos, a work-in-progress dissertation on the Palmer Divide or countless irreplaceable possessions, she took newspaper archives in the two hours she had to pack up her life.
“They can’t be replaced, but everybody that lost a house lost those things,” she said about the items she left behind.
Von Ahlefeldt is the owner, publisher, reporter, designer, editor, advertising representative, and photographer of the Black Forest News and Palmer Divide Pioneer, a community-based one-woman news organization, informing a few hundred readers each week on the happenings of the forest.
“I do the whole thing myself,” she said. “I’m it.”
In 1997 von Ahlefeldt purchased the paper from a neighbor who had purchased the paper from another neighbor years before. Since moving to the area in 1970, she has devoted her entire life to Black Forest. She has written a book, a dissertation, and, as you’ve probably figured, printed thousands of words on newsprint from her homegrown operation.
Last week she missed her deadline - by two days. After all, she has to publish every week or she loses her legal status, she said.
When the newspaper came, von Ahlefeldt went around handing out issues for free.
For 25 bucks a year, you can subscribe to the newspaper and receive weekly reports from what she calls an “ecologically and environmentally themed” publication.
Friday’s headline? “Tragic Week for Black Forest: Most of forest devastated by extreme wildland fire. Many must hit the reset button and start over.”
Now reflecting, von Ahlefeldt is trying to figure out what that button is.
The paper has a long, rich history of covering community news, and the Black Forest fire isn’t the first wildfire to threaten the 53-year-old institution; in 1965 another blaze almost burnt up the newspaper.
She walked away from the fire with a few personal belongings, an injured horse and a commitment to report the news as she always has before.
“The paper in the early days had sections on many different communities,” she said. “It depended on what was going on and who owned the paper. It was always focused on the Black Forest community. It used to have a column called “the grapevine” and it was kind of a friendly gossip column.”
For 20 years, it also had a column written by a sheriff’s deputy where neighbors could learn who broke what law. Like other fixtures in the newspaper, the column went away.
Another fixture might disappear soon, too.
Looking back on all of her hard work, it might be time to hang up the notepad and pen.
“For the time being, I’m going to keep it going,” said von Ahlefeldt. “I don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. I don’t want to see the paper go, but there are things I need time for.”
Time to rebuild, to rethink and, eventually, to overcome.
For one, she hopes to republish her book, “Thunder, sun and snow: The history of Colorado’s Black Forest.”
“These are days no one wanted to happen,” she wrote in the latest issue. “Despite the beliefs of people versed in wildland fire, forest and ecology that it was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ Any way this is viewed, it is a huge tragedy for people, for animals and for the ecosystem as we knew it.”
Aside from a brief message to readers, von Ahlefeldt refrained from making herself a part of the story - a saga she thinks is far from over.
As she correctly notes at the end of an editorial, “The rest of the story of this fire must still happen.”