Naturalist Kevin Cook examines a wildflower; if we rebuild it, will they come? Courtesy Harry Strharsky

Watchword of future: Prevention

Not long after the twin towers fell 20 years ago this month, an adamancy arose around an idea: Build them back, bigger and better than before.

That didn’t happen but the notion expressed represented an urge and an urgency with some merit: Failure isn’t final, we’re here for reasons, we’re not leaving.

Bam.

Something similar is afoot a year on from the twin fires of 2020 though in a leaner more laconic mode for Northern Colorado compared with lower Manhattan.

And sans the fanfare, it’s already begun.

Ropes Course

One of the first things Brad Abbott did was begin again.

“Log off all the burnt stuff, scrape the ground, plant 300 new trees, lay down 700 pounds of seed,” said the executive director of Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, based in Fort Collins and located 70 miles west of the city.

This was in a part of the youth retreat and campground known as Beaver Meadows, which fire destroyed.

“It went about a half-mile to the north,” he said of the blaze, “nibbled at the northern edge, then up two gulches, took the power … made a run through the camp, took the High Ropes course … some outdoor worship areas.”

Fire damaged two-thirds of the camp’s 117 acres. The meadows got its Alpine seed mix of grasses and wildflowers — “It came back beautifully” — the ropes course was rebuilt, buildings treated for smoke and ash damage, a logging firm took burnt trees away, but only 10 acres could be done.

Sky Ranch called the overall effort “Leave a Trace” — a play on “leave no trace” as the point here was to build it back, and even better. A worship area was moved, work crews built a trail connecting its program areas. Some parts were “totally changed … totally transformed, a life-from-death work which,” he added, “is kind of what we’re all about.”

Costs are nearing $500,000. Insurance paid a fraction of some; donations the rest, from churches in other states, and fundraising. Sky Ranch is affiliated with an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Our Saviour’s parish in Fort Collins.

The camp, born from a bankruptcy in 1963, owns the land under Lutheran Ranch of the Rockies

An average year sees the camp host 600 kids through the summer, another 150 offsite. In 2020, because of the pandemic, it had just received Larimer County permission to run the camp. Four days later came the fire. Staff, which had been isolated because of COVID prior to that, were evacuated Aug. 14 and gone for the next three months.

This year 120 kids helped rebuild it and 350 came for camp: “a normal year, given the 50% restriction,” he said.

Further work will include a new maintenance building, transformers and electrical work, compacting the ground — “lots of the roots were burned so it’s easy to kind of post-hole,” he said. A local tree company may bring in volunteers to help out.

“We’re already making plans,” he said.

Water, Water

It’s maybe not oft imagined in Manhattan but around here yes: Fire damages water.

That seems backward, but there it is.

The two fires brought “a double whammy,” said Esther Vincent, director of environmental services for Northern Water in Berthoud. East Troublesome hit Big Thompson water, Cameron Peak affected those communities that depend on the Poudre River.

“For some,” it was both, she said: “These are their two primary sources of water supply.”

Vincent said, “We’re seeing a lot of our water users concerned.”

Fort Collins and Greeley in the fire’s aftermath “have had to shut off their intake because of blackwater,” — large quantities of carbon in the Poudre River — “which is not treatable.”

And some damage won’t happen immediately because water retention can happen over several years.

“Water quality impact is more attenuated,” she said. “Post-fire runoff enters the system, water quality degrades.”

In cases where treatment is possible, it can require “more chemicals, more costs.”

Northern’s regular “robust water quality monitoring [and] routine, real-time baseline monitoring” gives it a deep bench of data to work from, to mark water quality changes and give users enough time to respond.

Communities closer to the source — Estes Park, for example, which gets water right out of the Adams Tunnel — are “more sensitive to the changes.”

Another issue: algae blooms in the reservoirs themselves, because “post-fire runoff is rich in nutrients” — essentially fertilizing the water. Some algae bring toxins, such as occurred at Willow Creek Reservoir last month.

The U.S. Forest Service closed it briefly, though contamination levels were below required thresholds.

“It’s important to continue restoration of damaged areas to ‘keep the hill on the hill’ and minimize debris flow. A lot more needs to be done,” including increased attention, and state and federal funding.

Raw Material

That’s a song others sing as well.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science this month convened a trio of academics to discuss climate’s influence on wildfire activity. Colleen Reid, CU Boulder geography professor and an environmental health fellow at Harvard’s school of public health, was on the panel. Topics included the part vegetation plays in preventing wildfires and how to “assess vulnerability and increase resilience to” future fires.

And in April, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, put his two cents in, asking for $60 billion with a new bill dubbed the “Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act.”

Bennet in August was on a state barnstorming tour to push the bill, speaking, for instance, in late August with Denver Water chief executive Jim Lochhead.

Two-thirds of the cash would go to the U.S. Forest Service and the rest for state and local grants for risk-mitigation: thinning trees, creating fire breaks, and boosting recovery work in burned areas. 

It’s a tune Kevin Cook knows by heart.

A naturalist by trade, an author by need, an advocate by pure passion and extensive experience, Cook sat by chance with BizWest staff at Loveland Coffee Co., adding a later phone call, to plead for change.

“Don’t build a burnable house in a fire-driven ecosystem,” he said.

Houses are made of wood; make them, he said, of something else.

He suggested, strongly, that buyers get no clear title to land until they take a required class — nothing as extensive as a semester, but perhaps a Saturday seminar — on the hazards of living amid Ponderosa Pine and building your dwelling out of them.

This traffic school before the infraction or accident could be coupled with building codes and permitting to require the use of non-burnable material, which, he said, looks like wood these days, anyway.

“This is not just next week or next year,” he said. “This is looking far ahead.”

But starting now.

“You plant the seed, water it, watch it grow,” he said of efforts to change hearts and minds and regulatory codes. “We’ve done it before” he said, for plenty of other things where human knowledge has grown past current practice.

Ecology is now “a body of knowledge” that now tells us about, for instance, low-temperature fires compared with blazes that burn hotter and longer.

A second bit of higher fire education: Fires don’t fully consume the fuel when they burn through an area. This can set the stage for the next one.

“Cameron Peak burned over the High Park fire,” he said, noting that when the latest burn came through last year, dead trees from the previous fire-to-end-all-fires “were just more fuel.”

Half-dead trees looking mostly burned were still out there, he said, because they weren’t cleared out. A portion needs to be left behind to protect from erosion but “dead trees burn like charcoal. A second fire can sterilize the soil” — meaning perhaps decades before plant life returns.

Chip some of it, Cook said — something Sky Ranch’s Abbott is planning for the camp — and use it for mulch. Use charcoaled trees for fuel in electric power plants, perhaps instead of coal, before those close.

Cook is a Cassandra of sorts — “worse and worse scenarios, that’s what the future holds” — citing state population he said has more than tripled in 50 years. More people are confronted by more costly future fires and more “complexity until we absolutely require changes” in how we live.

Annual Events

What’s most immediately up next?

Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist and researcher at CSU-Fort Collins, said, essentially, it depends.

“We’ll have La Niña returning this year,” he said, referring to the weather phenomenon that is the colder sibling to El Niño. “This doesn’t translate into more rain.”

He said the biggest fires have naturally enough come after years with low snowfall and hot summers.

Add in water needed for other things — crops, drinking, washing our hands for at least 20 seconds every time — and lakes, streams, and reservoirs decline.

OK, so that’s bad, right?

It depends.

“In Colorado we’ve had a pretty good monsoon season,” he said. “Our mountains have had a fairly good month, month and a half. We’ve had timely rains. We’re supposed to get wetter … into September.”

In 2020, “the monsoon season was an abject failure.”

Good rain prevents forest fires. “This year was a nice wet, late Spring. May was a really good month.”

So that’s good, then?

Well, “hydrophobic soils don’t absorb moisture, so it’s easy to have flash flooding on those burn scars,” which means even with more rain, you get the water quality issues Esther Vincent noted.

Snow also matters, Goble said, but we don’t know what this year’s snowpack will be like, since it hasn’t snowed.

“It’s a big question mark,” he said. La Niña’s “got me feeling kinda shaky about snowpack season.”

But a good spring in 2022 — meaning a wet one — could mitigate even that, he said. So this year looks pretty good, thanks to the monsoons which, though bad for the water, are good for keeping us fire-free.

But ultimately, Goble said, “we don’t know.”

Uncertainty and climate — “everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it,” goes the old saw — and constant monitoring and … disinclination to changing how we live means fires, while sure not exactly friends, will at least be fairly consistent neighbors.

“It’s going to be part of the landscape we live in,” Esther Vincent said, “for many years to come.”

See related stories.

‘Unprecedented’: A look back at 2020s Colorado wildfires

Estes Park learns from brush with disaster

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On the ropes: High ropes course at youth camp, before and after. Courtesy Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp

Not long after the twin towers fell 20 years ago this month, an adamancy arose around an idea: Build them back, bigger and better than before.

That didn’t happen but the notion expressed represented an urge and an urgency with some merit: Failure isn’t final, we’re here for reasons, we’re not leaving.

Bam.

Something similar is afoot a year on from the twin fires of 2020 though in a leaner more laconic mode for Northern Colorado compared with lower Manhattan.

And sans the fanfare, it’s already begun.

Ropes Course

One of the first things Brad Abbott did was begin again.

“Log off all the burnt stuff, scrape the ground, plant 300 new trees, lay down 700 pounds of seed,” said the executive director of Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, based in Fort Collins and located 70 miles west of the city.

This was in a part of the youth retreat and campground known as Beaver Meadows, which fire destroyed.

“It went about a half-mile to the north,” he said of the blaze, “nibbled at the northern edge, then up two gulches, took the power … made a run through the camp, took the High Ropes course … some outdoor worship areas.”

Fire damaged two-thirds of the camp’s 117 acres. The meadows got its Alpine seed mix of grasses and wildflowers — “It came back beautifully” — the ropes course was rebuilt, buildings treated for smoke and ash damage, a logging firm took burnt trees away, but only 10 acres could be done.

Sky Ranch called the overall effort “Leave a Trace” —…