The closure of Glenwood Canyon after a mudslide dumped 10 feet of debris on Interstate 70 means it will be days or even weeks before the Colorado Department of Transportation will have enough of the road cleared to be open for even one lane of traffic in each direction.
Based on conversations with a hydrologist from Bureau of Land Management and county and other federal officials, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said recently that the mudslides will continue to be a problem for the major east-west roadway for the next five to 10 years.
Jankovsky was part of a panel of county commissioners who spoke with members of the Wildfire Matters Review Committee at the state Capitol last week. He said the Grizzly Creek fire burned "hotter," which damaged soil and vegetation roots. When water hits that soil, it created erosion and a lot of debris, which has now ended up on the highway, in the Colorado River and crossing over to butt up against the rail line on the other side of the river.
The costs are piling up, too, Jankovsky indicated. It will cost the county about $250,000 just to deal with a small 50-acre fire that was in the burn area recently.
"We have the dubious distinction of having the most wildfires" by county in the state, he told the committee. That goes back to notable fires like the one on Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs, which killed 14 firefighters in 1994. For a short period of time last year, the area was home to the largest wildfire in state history, the Pine Gulch fire in August that scorched 139,007 acres in Mesa and Garfield counties. The record lasted only two months; two other fires — East Troublesome in Grand and Larimer counties and Cameron Peak in Larimer County — both topped the acreage of Pine Gulch by mid-October.
He also noted that Sen. Michael Bennet was able to secure $1 million for private landowners, with a 20% match from the county, to work on mitigation efforts.
On the federal side, "we have 30 plus years of mismanagement in our forests," Jankovsky told the committee. "We're not being proactive — we need more focus on prevention and fuel mitigation. We need to do what we can to prevent these fires before they happen and change the diversity in our forests. That can be done through logging, clear-cutting and thinning."
All that logging got shut down on the federal lands, although a biomass facility in Eagle County has allowed logging to start up again, he said. Thinning doesn't stop fires, but it slows them down, he said.
"We've changed; we're in an area of mega-fires," and what the state is doing on aerial support is important, he said. But don't be like California, with a lot of pretty machinery and not taking care of the mitigation, he added.
Commissioner Jody Shattuck-McNally of Larimer County shared her county's experience with Cameron Peak, which started on Aug. 13 and grew to more than 209,000 acres by mid-October. They also had to deal with the East Troublesome fire at the same time, which moved from Grand County to Larimer and forced the evacuation of Estes Park, which she said was only "minutes away" from being overtaken by the fire.
"We have a long history of disasters in Larimer County," Shattuck-McNally said, such as the 1976 flood, 2013 flood and the 2012 High Park fire.
"We're having a lot of experience with natural disasters," she said.
The county has now opened its first emergency management office, sharing space with the Loveland emergency response group.
The county continues to struggle with impacts from Cameron Peak, such as the recent rains that created a debris flow in Poudre Canyon. Shattuck-McNally said the flow produced debris that will cost $7.5 million to remove . It also killed three people with one still missing, she added.
"One of the biggest concerns we have to consider, once the fire is put out, the fire incident isn't done," such as what happened in Poudre Canyon in July.
Shattuck-McNally said county officials are looking at land use and land management. One success has been a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service with private land owners, which resulted in mitigation in the Arapaho and Roosevelt forests. That helped slow fires down as well as decrease the temperature, which may have saved the Shambala Center during the Cameron Peak fire.
The commissioners have also put together grants during the past two years, and more in 2021, for training and equipment for the 14 volunteer fire departments in the county, she said. The county is also researching innovative programs from other states on forest management, hoping for solutions such as what to do about landfills that are filling up with debris.
"We have 100,000 cubic yards of debris to move," she told the committee. "We're not proud of having the largest wildfire in Colorado, but we are doing our best to be resilient and recover from this disaster" and learn how to be proactive in the future.
"I believe we will see the results of the Cameron Peak fire in the years to come. You have your work cut out for you," replied Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins.
Jefferson County has had its share of large wildfires, too. The state's largest, prior to 2020, was the Hayman wildfire in 2002, which burned 138,114 acres and killed six people, including five firefighters. The fire was started by a Forest Service employee who was burning a letter from her estranged husband in a campfire ring and failed to ensure the fire was out. She is still on probation, which was extended another 15 years in 2018, and owes about $42 million in restitution.
Jefferson County Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper noted that two-thirds of the county is in the wildland-urban interface, with much of the fuels coming from dense Conifer forests, which burn quickly. One of the areas commissioners look at is the wildfire risk and how it intersects with planning and zoning.
Two years ago, the county formed a risk reduction task force, to figure out how to leverage resources to address mitigation, as well as ramping up the pace and scale of wildfire mitigation.
The task force looked at mitigation and revenue sources, and came up with recommendations to form "a county-wide clearinghouse for past, present and future mitigation efforts, drawing on Geographic Information Systems data."
The gap is that it isn't happening countywide, Dahlkemper said. One challenge was finding out just how many homeowners are building defensible space, realizing that the cost of doing so may be a challenge for the county's increasingly aging residents.
Another key to more extensive mitigation is access to contractors who haul away forest debris, which was helped by legislation in 2021 to increase incentives. And they're looking at how to expand defensible space, especially when a homeowner is getting ready to sell, similar to what happens with septic systems. "But when we took a closer work, we found we don't have the statutory authority to do this with defensible space," Dahlkemper said.
All this costs money, and the county is looking at tax options for sustainable funding for mitigation efforts, perhaps only in the WUI areas, similar to a tax structure in Summit and Chaffee counties.
With the work of the task force done, the county is at work implementing those recommendations. That includes a wildfire commission that looks at planning and zoning codes, mitigation and funding, such as grants as well as a possible future "debrucing" initiative. (The action would allow the county to retain all revenues they collect instead of refunding some of it back to taxpayers; Jeffco is one of 13 counties that hasn't debruced.)
Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke said on the same day as the Grizzly Creek fire, the Williams Fork fire broke out in Grand County. All summer, helicopters flew over his house, dropping water on the fires.
Then on Oct. 14, the East Troublesome fire broke out. On Oct. 21, the fire "blew up," spreading rapidly through Grand County, toward Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park. The towns of Granby and Grand Lake were evacuated, with 600 buildings destroyed or seriously damaged.
The costs will be in the millions, Linke said. Monsoons are good, except for the mudslides that are closing the roads, and, with water not absorbing into the topsoil, the damage would be extensive, he said. For the future, the county is looking at access and evacuation strategies, improving communications among fire teams, and looking at a pilot program on industrial hemp that could help with erosion control.
Commissioner Matt Salka of La Plata County talked about the East Canyon fire from 2020, which burned 2,900 acres, and the 416 fire in 2018 which burned almost 55,000 acres. Improvements can always be made, he said, such as in communications among all parties, including the federal government. The county got a community planning assistance grant last year, to be applied to future land use decisions, and they also set up a dedicated wildfire council, with plans to adopt an international WUI code.
County Administrator Peter Baier, representing Mesa County, said a big fire like Pine Gulch carries a cost of $26 million, which would destroy all the services the county provides. Fuel costs alone were $80,000 per day, he said.
Post-fire, the county has worked with private landowners on mitigation to help prevent the debris flows seen in other areas.