A version of this was published in the Winter Park Times, Nov. 6, 2020 https://winterparktimes.com/opinion/columnists/we-are-forever-grateful/
As I write this, it is very difficult to focus on politics. The election and COVID are nearly forgotten because we in Grand County has been traumatized by a wildfire ranked as the second-worst in Colorado’s history. Even those of us who were not yet to be determined to be close enough to qualify as a pre-evacuation/evacuation zone, saw a wildfire that ran 20 miles east in a night that could just have easily run twenty miles south to Fraser in a wind shift. The outpouring of care from County residents to food banks, livestock transports, and animal shelters, the heroism of local law enforcement evacuating those in danger and our own firefighters were the brightest lights shining through smoke and the emotions of despair and fright. We are forever grateful.
It was the beetle-killed forests, over 70% under the ownership and/or management of the federal government in Grand County, that fueled both the Williams Fork Fire in August/September later dwarfed by the East Troublesome fire in October. The public policy implications for more funding of the urban interface of private lands with federal forests must have our highest priority in Grand County. Climate change has contributed to these wildfires. It is no joke and human contribution to it needs to be taken seriously, but there is still much to do at our local level until we tackle that global problem with any success. We have just had a horrific wake-up call.
My view from the ridge between Winter Park and Fraser could give an idea of some direction in public policy that may protect us from such disasters in the future. I have been a part-time and full-time resident of that ridge since the late 1960s. The first vacation after we moved to Colorado was at Beaver’s, then a dude ranch on the outskirts of a small settlement, now the town of Winter Park. We were brought there by my love of horses and the lore of the West of my native Oklahoma, and the passion of skier husband who learned the sport on the slopes above Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, later the site of a Winter Olympics. It was on the trail rides of that vacation we fell in love with the view from the ridge. Yes, we stayed in the Beaver’s lodge in 1965 and now, in 2020, I was thrilled to learn it will be renovated and repurposed by the University of Denver. In 1967, we were able to stake our claim to a bit of land on the ridge. We were at the edge of miles of logged land with second-growth matchstick lodgepole pines so close together we could not ride our horses through them without banging our knees. We watched the Fraser Valley change from ranch land to being ringed by developments of condos and second homes. Enough of the valley remained open spaces after some epic fights of citizens against developers so that we were spared the urban sprawl of Summit County at least until now. The Fraser River Valley landscape had changed dramatically because of the bark beetle killing the lodgepoles, turning much of the evergreen trees into gray ghosts. Warmer winters of climate change failed to kill the bark beetles, once kept in check by long gone episodes of 30 below zero weather. This year summer seasonal monsoons failed to materialize as extreme drought-plagued us. Some landowners responded to the relatively small October 2010 Church Park fire five miles from us by clear-cutting every tree on their property. Elsewhere I saw other owners do likewise, clear-cutting trees surrounding the YMCA camp at Tabernash, at a ranch near us, on the approaches to Grand Lake Lodge, and in a peninsular development near the lakes. The major private developers around Winter Park and Fraser, and the ski area, with help of federal and state urban interface funds, did selective thinning and removal of dead trees and downed logs and cutting firebreaks. For several years we endured the smoke from burning slash piles and did our own share of forestry care, as well. The Fraser Valley now is a different, more biologically diverse landscape, but it is still beautiful. It made the area more defensible in case of wildfires threatened by the minimally managed forests around it. It may serve as an example of how to deal with Grand County’s population growth and incursions into our forests, but it will take private and public money, lots of it. Zoning changes and building codes can play a role, too. It is just a matter of public will.