Fire, monsoons and painful lessons

It started with a few sprinkles as I drove south past Gateway and what used to be Uravan and on through the Disappointment Valley last Thursday morning. By midafternoon, headed home past Dolores and Rico and over Lizard Head Pass with yet another old Land Cruiser in tow, my windshield wipers were working hard to keep up with a steady rain bringing cool, wet relief to parched terrain.

The rhythm of wiper blades competed with iTunes Friday evening as we drove over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte, where more showers welcomed us on Saturday. Sunday afternoon, a “40 days and 40 nights” style deluge stranded us inside the Mountain Heritage Museum while rain mixed with hail poured from darkening skies and flowed down Elk Avenue.

Blessedly, the monsoon season has begun, perhaps signaling a break from Colorado’s worst fire season in a decade. Given the frailties of human nature, it’s just as likely to signal diminished concern and business as usual as much as recognition of the danger.

As the purr of the diesel accompanied me over familiar terrain last week, I recalled 2002 and stopping my motorcycle to watch helicopters drop water on flaming trees just north of Durango. I also watched the smoke from a major blaze to the south of us blanket Grand Junction that summer.

A few months after that, I was standing in front of local residents in meeting rooms in Naturita, Telluride, Montrose and elsewhere in western Colorado, hearing from them about lessons learned from those fires. It was my contribution to a study of “People and Fire in Western Colorado,” being done for the U.S. Forest Service through Fort Lewis College.

The lessons were simple, really, but easily forgotten, if learned at all.

At a meeting in Meeker, I learned from BLM firefighters about the “red rocks, green rocks” triage when evacuations were ordered because of fire threat. A green rock at the entrance to your rural driveway left the possibility of protection if flames threatened your home and outbuildings. A red rock signaled otherwise. It warned of either a driveway impassible for fire equipment, little defensible space around the dwelling or other dangers that might put firefighters at risk.

Funny thing was, back then at least, the colored rocks were removed before homeowners were allowed back into threatened terrain. Why, I wondered, were the red ones not left in place to provide a “teachable moment.”

Hard realities were not lost on homeowners and others who offered their opinions at those meetings I facilitated as part of the study. Realtors whose sales of rural homes had gone south, either because of threats of potential fires or because once-desirable views were now of blackened terrain; insurance agents who at least temporarily could no longer write policies on those homes; certainly the local firefighters and sheriffs weary of chasing all over hell and gone to protect remote dwellings, were all pretty much of the same mind.

Some things needed to change. 

Maybe there should be restrictions on where building took place out in the hinterlands. Or, at a minimum, there ought to be requirements related to access, defensible space, building and roofing materials, water availability and such as a condition of approval for rural homes and subdivisions in locations where wildfires could be a threat.

But those kinds of common-sense rules need to be imposed mostly by county commissioners, folks who usually have at least one finger raised into the political winds and sometimes keep a saddle handy for riding the fence when faced with such potentially troublesome decisions.

Fire and law enforcement budgets, higher pro-rata costs for road building and other infrastructure and other public safety concerns are sacrificed on the altar of private property rights for residents and the developers of those remote subdivisions. 

We all end up footing the bill for that. Some homeowners and firefighters pay the ultimate price.

I’m not trying to be holier than anyone here. I bought homes in two Evergreen-area mountain subdivisions for the usual reasons before moving back home to the Western Slope. And I used to be one of those county commissioners.

But, despite the rains of the last few days, we’re again awash in painful, deadly and very costly reminders that “Mother Nature bats last.” Perhaps someday we’ll act on that reality.

Jim Spehar is praying for both rain and common sense as antidotes to high fire danger. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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