We live in a time of changed climate, as was evidenced by the firestorm that all but engulfed the Three Lakes region on Oct. 21. As we rebuild, we also need to rethink. The small town of Greensburg, Kansas, may offer us some guidance.
Several years ago, I visited this western Kansas farm community. Greensburg was all but wiped off the map by an EF5 tornado in 2007 which – considering 95% of town literally disappeared in the 250 mph maelstrom – mercifully resulted in the loss of only 11 citizens.
Our local blessing – largely because of the heroism of our first responders – was the loss of only 2 local citizens. Healing the psychological and economic damage will be a long difficult process requiring help from all of us offered to those most impacted.
Greensburg was rebuilt with tornado “proof” construction, supplied by almost entirely by green energy. This western Kansas farm town has become a model of how to rebuild when faced with the return of a known danger. Standing on top of an observation tower it was heartening to see the patchwork of innovative solar innovative buildings slowly repopulating the community. The only sad thing to see was the absence of old trees which offer Kansas towns cooling shade on during the relentless heat of a plains summer afternoon.
Perhaps we can consider rebuilding in the Three Lakes in a similar resilient fashion.
A good first step would be for the Grand County Commissioners and the Grand Lake Town Trustees to consider ordinances making it so homeowner associations cannot disallow stucco and steel siding construction techniques. These two building materials provide a cost effective method to resist fires (and woodpeckers).
All local governments, including the town board I serve on in Fraser should do the same. We could also model Winter Park’s ongoing, partially town funded efforts to remove dead trees from our communities. We need to seriously examine how close trees and shrubs are to existing structures.
Admittedly, in many cases, the fire storm which engulfed the Three Lakes burned through most any construction system known to exist short of a concrete bunker. What some fire scientists call a fire storm or a mass fire event likely led to the East Troublesome Fire advancing 17 miles in an estimated 90 minutes. The 25 mph winds on Oct. 21 likely lit the fuse starting the fire fueled storm. It is also likely fire fed off the dense dead lodgepole remains in the forest between CO 125 and US 34, providing the fuel feeding this fire storm.
Many have told me stories about Wednesday evening, all with common threads. The nightmarish roar coming from the west sounding like an oncoming freight train. Dark skies illuminating oddly orange colored trees. Lake Granby’s turbid surface reflecting the fiery colors of the oncoming fire storm. Walls of flame chasing evacuees down county roads toward US 34 and the route south to safety. Hurricane force winds knocking people down and moving cars off track. An atmosphere which appeared to be on fire.
Smoke fueled clouds above the fire Wednesday evening towered like thunderheads – high enough to have lenticular cloud caps which normally occur at altitudes of 40,000 feet.
A similar firestorm started during the Pine Gulch fire north of Grand Junction this summer. This type of event is all too common in California. The East Troublesome firestorm may be the first recorded at our high altitude.
The warmer climate means our forests will continue to be at risk for this type of event. Only weather conditions luck and efforts from heroic firefighters kept the fire from wrapping south of Lake Granby leading to a dead fuel rich path through the Strawberry region, over Winter Park Highlands and into the Fraser Valley.
We must manage existing conditions to at least give us a fighting chance at suppression or redirection of the inevitable next fire. Removing dead and diseased trees from the landscape and thinning stands is a logical place to start. Money to accomplish this massive effort might come from those who depend on our landscape even more than we do – namely an East Slope population already likely faced with paying millions to deal with water quality degraded by a fire scarred watershed they depend on.
Once again, we confront a dilemma which has an obvious answer. Do we fix a problem before it creates disaster and tragedy? Do we accomplish the heavy lifting required to turn down the planet’s thermostat? Do we invest in fire resistant exterior finishes for our homes? Do we invest in creating healthy forests and well-watered meadows before a firestorm engulfs us again?
Are we smart enough rectify the poor decisions of the past?
I believe we are. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.