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Losses in East Troublesome Fire enormous, still mounting

The Samuelsons survey the damage to the Troublesome Basin, where their outfitting company is based. Two longtime outfitters were hard hit in the East Troublesome Fire along with hundreds of homes. As the fire damage comes into focus, it's clear the losses will be far reaching.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

GRANBY — One of the most destructive fires in Colorado history has subsided, but the rebuilding efforts for Grand County are just beginning.

Formal damage assessments for structures in the county have been completed after the East Troublesome Fire scorched through nearly 200,000 acres in northern Grand County. According to those reports, 555 structures were destroyed, nine buildings suffered major damage and 34 sustained minor damage.

Among the buildings destroyed, 366 were residential and 189 were outbuildings. More than 200 were people’s primary residences.

Losing such a large number of homes in a county that’s already facing a critical housing shortage has been pressing on local officials’ minds. For Sheena Darland, operations manager for the Grand County Housing Authority, it’s painful to see the added strain.

“It’s almost like a sucker punch to the stomach,” she said. “It just makes you sick to think we already had a housing crisis going on, and now our community is uprooted.”

Two surveys went out — one to evacuees and one to homeowners — to begin connecting those in need of a place to stay with those willing to lease out their homes. Darland said more than 190 homeowners signed up to offer their houses to the roughly 50 families who responded needing some sort of housing.

However, many of these homes are only available through the spring. Darland and the county are working with community partners like Snow Mountain Ranch and Sun Communities to find a longer-term solution while seeking funding from state and federal sources.

Unfortunately, these solutions will take time.

“These people are not going to be able to rebuild overnight,” Darland said. “It’s going to be a long haul. And how do we keep them here?”

Scorched livelihoods

Ten buildings belonging to businesses were destroyed in the fire.

That includes buildings at C Lazy U Ranch, Winding River Ranch and Highland Marina. Two longtime outfitters in the area — Dave Parri’s Outfitting & Guide Service and Samuelson Outfitters — also have suffered heavy losses.

Three generations of the Samuelson family have operated in the Troublesome Basin for more than half a century. Cathy Samuelson and her husband, Richard “Sambo” Samuelson, lost most of the 2020 hunting season because of the fire, and two of their camps were destroyed. Two employees lost their homes in the fire, as well.

“It was just so overwhelming,” Cathy Samuelson said, reflecting on the loss. “I consider the basin a backyard and took care of it like it was my own.”

Samuelson is still waiting on a decision from the U.S. Forest Service on whether the area will be open to permitted outfitters next season. Until then, they cannot accept the deposits that usually help pay the bills.

Many buildings lost in the fire were insured, but some damages are more difficult to measure. Insurance and financial aid has been a struggle because the Samuelsons lost no physical, brick-and-mortar structures in the fire. That makes receiving aid difficult while their insurance company is saying many of their tangible losses are not covered.

Samuelson highlighted the deep ties both outfitters have in the community along with the business hunting brings into the county during offseasons.

“(We) have been outfitting and supporting the community for years,” she said. “Especially during the slow time of year, hunting is such a huge financial impact to this community. Its loss is trickle-down, a domino effect. It affects the lodging, the restaurants and those people that work for those businesses. There’s a huge impact.”

Acreage-wise, the fire burned almost 15% of the land in Grand County. With tourism and recreation being Grand’s primary economic drivers, the burn scar over public lands — spanning Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Rocky Mountain National Park — could hamper tourism for years to come.

The county said many ranches have reported a significant or total loss of hay intended for winter feeding of livestock. Damages and impacts associated with agricultural land and operations are ongoing.

The burned land incorporated significant grazing leases held by local producers, and impacts to agriculture irrigation supply and delivery are being assessed.

The East Troublesome Fire destroyed two of the camps operated by the Samuelson Outfitters. The family business still doesn’t know if it will be able to operate next season.
Photo from Richard Samuelson

Price tags

As for the costs to local agencies, the numbers are approximate but expensive.

In a letter to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the estimated costs of the county’s response has been about $352,000 as of Nov. 12. Those expenses include $80,000 for staff, logistics and emergency protective actions in the Office of Emergency Management; $150,000 for evacuations and emergency protective actions for the Grand County Sheriff’s Office; and $76,000 in overtime for county government employees.

One of the biggest concerns for the county is the fact that departments have reached their capacities.

“Grand County is not a large county in terms of population and overall budget, nor does it have depth within departments and emergency management,” Grand County commissioners wrote in the letter to the state. “Grand County has been responding to multiple fires for almost three months, leading to staff shortages, increased overtime and costs associated with necessary and required resources.”

Before the East Troublesome Fire, the county had been battling the nearly 15,000-acre Williams Fork Fire for over a month. Other fires the county responded to during this dry year included the Dice Hill Fire just on the other side of the county line in Summit County and the Deep Creek Fire outside Kremmling.

Debris removal from the East Troublesome Fire likely will be too much for the county to handle alone. Grand has estimated that debris could exceed over 30,000 cubic yards and cost more than $27 million to haul off.

County officials have reported that underinsured or uninsured homeowners have been reaching out asking for assistance with debris removal.

“The debris management costs can be upward of $50,000 to remove the debris for one single home,” County Manager Kate McIntire said. “I’ve heard that some families are only covered (by insurance) for debris management at $5,000.”

Water’s depths

Various watersheds hit by the fire — including the Poudre River, North Fork of the Big Thompson River, North Fork of the Colorado River, Three Lakes, Willow Creek and East Troublesome Creek — are expected to feel the effects for a long time.

These impacts will reach far beyond Grand County, which supplies water to major cities on the northern Front Range. Northern Water provides water to more than 1 million people, which is equal to 615,000 irrigated acres in northern Colorado.

“Sedimentation, debris flows and water contamination will threaten drinking water supplies for years to come,” the commissioners wrote.

Other environmental impacts like erosion and forest health are only just beginning to be evaluated.

Hazardous tree removal is another concern, as fire damage has made many trees in the burn area a falling hazard. The Colorado State Forest Service estimates more than 1,000 trees will need to be removed in county rights of way.

To give an idea of the extent of damage, the Colorado Department of Transportation had to cut more than 850 hazardous trees along the burned area of Colorado Highway 125 before the road could reopen.

Because the task ahead is so massive, the county has requested continued assistance and assessment regarding debris removal and management from the state.

Impacted utility companies also are asking the state for assistance, including Northern Water, Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District, Mountain Parks Electric and Xcel Energy.

Estimates peg the overall damage from the fire at nearly $200 million. That amount could go up as the aftermath grows clearer.

This story is from SkyHiNews.com.

Battling Mother Nature: How CDOT keeps I-70 open during snowstorms

SILVERTHORNE — Summit County thrives on snow.

It serves as the essential driving force that brings guests from around the world to enjoy the area’s ski slopes and backcountry chutes. But the snow also brings considerable challenges for transportation workers trying to contend with Mother Nature to keep the Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor open during the winter — one of the state’s biggest thoroughfares and an important economic driver for the entire region.

With businesses and industries relying on heavy traffic loads across Vail Pass and the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, along with locals trying to get to work in treacherous conditions, officials understand what’s at stake, and take pride in their efforts to keep things moving smoothly.

“For me, the most rewarding piece is seeing the dedication of all of our employees and what they sacrifice on Thanksgiving and Christmas to get everyone where they need to go, and making sure school buses can continue to run and that EMS can get to the hospital,” said Kane Schneider, the region’s deputy maintenance superintendent with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “It takes a statewide effort to support.”

Local transportation officials have more than enough territory to keep them busy during a winter storm, and the delineation of responsibilities is important. CDOT breaks the state up into five separate regions for operations. Summit County is on the eastern boarder of Region 3, along with the rest of the northwest part of the state. The I-70 Mountain Corridor runs as part of a joint operations area with Region 1 to the east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, about a 130-mile stretch between Dotsero and Golden in all.

The Region 3 section is further broken down into two maintenance areas: “Mary,” from Dotsero to the top of Vail Pass; and “Paul,” from Vail Pass to the tunnel. In the Paul area alone, workers are responsible for maintaining more than 800 lane-miles of roadway on I-70 and detour routes like Loveland Pass and Colorado Highway 131 among others.

With so much ground to cover, each new storm brings a unique challenge.

“We plan ahead, communicate during the storm, adapt, change and shift depending on what’s happening around us,” Schneider said. “There’s a lot of self-gratification in combating a storm, and being successful in keeping the road open in inclement weather.

Plowing ahead

The breadth of the operation requires considerable staffing and equipment.

There are about 85 employees between the two maintenance areas in Region 3. But during winter months there’s a concerted effort to better support the joint operations area, annually bringing in about 18 additional staffers from places like Pueblo, Craig, Greeley and Durango to stay for the season. More drivers can be shifted around from other areas when necessary.

CDOT officials receive daily weather forecast updates from an in-house CDOT meteorologist, and begin planning for winter storm events days in advance during resource and operational readiness discussions between the Paul and Mary areas and the rest of the state.

Snowplow drivers get their schedules and their set patrol areas ahead of time. They often work 12-hour shifts. They’ll slide into the seat of the plow and get on the road after a quick conversation with the previous driver about how the plow was running, and a maintenance check.

The job has its pros and cons.

“I love moving snow,” said Ken Garcia, one of CDOT’s local snowplow drivers. “Running the heavy equipment has always been a joy of mine, and something I like to do for work. And it’s a really good team effort between the plow drivers, state troopers, dispatchers and supervisors. Everyone is working with one goal: to keep the roads open. … But it’s pretty mentally draining. You’re focused, you’re on high alert watching our for changing road conditions, for other traffic and all sorts of stuff like that.”

In a given storm there are about 30 plows making patrols throughout the region, laying down liquid de-icer, salt and sand (picked up from a 1,200-ton pile at CDOT’s Silverthorne maintenance facility). Many plows are stationed on routes through high-priority areas like Vail Pass and the Silverthorne hill.

Still, there are always surprises, and much of the work is reactive. CDOT often has to move drivers around to replace sick employees or broken down plows, or to remove a “clogged artery” after an accident or major spin out.

“In a lot of ways you just have to deal with each situation,” said Todd Anderson, highway maintenance supervisor for the Paul area. “We do have some planning in place for how many trucks we have, and where they’re going to be. But when a semi crashes, you can’t plan for that.”

Road closures require efficient communication between CDOT crews and law enforcement to shut off the flow of traffic and get heavy tows and other equipment in place. Schneider said having experienced workers who know their turnoffs and can stage backed up traffic on appropriate grades to get it moving again quickly is key. Frequent driver turnover from season to season creates additional difficulties.

Poor weather can also be troublesome for plow drivers — whiteout conditions in particular — but Garcia and other CDOT officials said that other drivers on the road are often of bigger concern.

“This is such a high volume, high profile area,” Garcia said. “Everyone is coming up here to get their turns, and there are a lot of out-of-staters and people who don’t know what they’re doing. But what’s really the worst are the people who are too confident. People are speeding and trying to pass you on the shoulder, or creeping up on your formation. That’s probably the most challenging aspect. It adds a whole other element of danger you’re looking out for.”

When there’s snow in the mountains, there’s always a chance of avalanches.

Explosive solutions

One vital aspect of CDOT’s winter operations is avalanche mitigation.

Historically, avalanche mitigation in highway programs has always been reliant on helicopters, howitzer cannons and “avalaunchers” firing explosives into the mountainside. But the department has begun to step back its dependence from traditional methods on advice from the U.S. Army, which provides the weapons, according to CDOT State Avalanche Coordinator Brian Gorsage.

“There’s more and more people out (in the backcountry), so shooting long-range projectiles kind of gets their hackles up,” Gorsage said. “Plus those missions take a while, and we’re having to handle live ordnance alongside the road. In the past 20 years there’s been a major step forward in mitigation technology, and CDOT has done a fantastic job jumping on board with that.”

Today, CDOT uses remote avalanche control systems, on more than 80% of avalanche operations along on the I-70 Mountain Corridor. Installations like the Gazex and O’Bellx systems create gas mixtures that allow for officials to trigger detonations at the flick of a switch. Earlier this year CDOT also installed two new Avalanche Guard systems, a cache and mortar system that launches explosives into designated areas.

Gorsage said the control systems are safer and provide officials with more flexibility, allowing them to conduct operations during early hours when traffic is lightest, or when a snowpack is at the peak of instability. CDOT officials have been tracking snowpack since the first snowfall of the season, and work closely with forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to determine when avalanche chutes above roadways are in need of mitigation.

“Those guys are out and about in the field digging holes in the snow, getting a feel for the layering in the snowpack, and determining how much snow water equivalent, with combined wind and temperatures its going to take to produce a natural slide,” Gorsage said. “What we do is very different from what a ski area does. We’re trying to prevent the large-scale, natural slides from reaching an open roadway.”

Avalanche crews are given about 24 hours notice, wherein they’ll start organizing a plan internally to get road closures in place with law enforcement, and get heavy duty snowblowing machines ready for cleanup.

“You kind of cheer the success once the snow and debris is on the roadway under our terms, but the work is really just beginning,” Gorsage said.

The scope of avalanche mitigation work along different slide paths can vary considerably from season to season, and is typically focused along chutes that pose the biggest dangers to roadways. Gorasage said last winter CDOT performed a few missions on Vail Pass, four to the west of the tunnels, and another in the Tenmile Canyon.

Meanwhile, CDOT conducted about 25 missions on the Seven Sisters chutes near Loveland Pass.

“Those paths are so steep, and the road is built right in the track of the avalanche path,” Gorsage said. “So if you do get snow movement, it’s going to end up in the roadway. It’s high priority to make it as safe as possible. Our tolerance in those areas is very low.”

It takes a considerable effort across numerous individuals to help keep roadways open during the winter, and officials say community members can do their part by being prepared, driving responsibly and allowing their crews to work safely.

“What we ask is that our stewards give us the room and the respect we need to do our jobs,” said Schneider. “Be patient with us, be understanding. We have a very complex and unique job that can be dangerous at times. But we have the best interest of everyone’s travel plans in mind, and we’re not just closing down roads to inconvenience someone. If we’re closing the road down is means there are legitimate safety concerns.”

 

State water board approves second phase of investigation into demand-management program

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is beginning phase two of an investigation into a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell.(Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

The state of Colorado will embark on the second phase of studying a potential water-savings plan, this time by developing a draft framework to test how the structure and design of such a program could work.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved at its regular meeting Nov. 18 a Step II Work Plan for its investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program.

“People in my basin, including myself, are very excited to get down the road of this next phase,” said CWCB board member Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa, White and Green river basins. “I think it will bring us a lot of certainty with where we end up on this really heavy issue.”

Since June 2019, eight workgroups composed of water experts from different sectors around the state have been hashing out the potential benefits, downsides and challenges of a voluntary and temporary program that would pay water users to cut back in order to leave more water in the Colorado River. The workgroups tackled eight subject areas: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts. A ninth workgroup, led by the Interbasin Compact Committee, focused solely on equity.

Their work is now done. The results of a year’s worth of meetings, in-depth discussions and workshops resulted in a 200-page report, released in July.

A project management team, made up of state officials from the CWCB, the Division of Water Resources and the attorney general’s office, will now take the input from the workgroups and use it to begin Step II. The overarching goals of this phase are to figure out if demand management would be achievable, worthwhile and advisable for Colorado.

“Ultimately, again, the question is: Is demand management a feasible tool to protect Colorado water users against the risks and impacts of a potential curtailment, and can we create some additional benefits as well?” said Amy Ostdiek, CWCB deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information.

At the heart of a potential demand-management program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations. If Colorado does not meet its obligation to deliver water to the lower basin, it could face mandatory cutbacks, known as curtailment.

Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool set aside in Lake Powell as a modest insurance policy. But developing a program raises many thorny questions such as how to create a program that is equitable and doesn’t result in negative economic impacts to agricultural communities.

In Step II, the project management team, with the help of consultants SGM, CDR Associates and WestWater Engineering, will develop a draft “strawman” framework of a demand-management program. Step II does not include a large-scale pilot program, but it leaves the door open to develop one in the future, potentially in collaboration with other upper-basin states. Ostdiek said the project management team should have the initial draft framework ready for the board to look at early next year.

CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell reminded board members that demand management is just one tool — but an important one — that the state is looking at to deal with looming water shortages.

“When we look at the challenge of a changing climate or a changing hydrology and the frequency and drought and the intensity of drought, it would be irresponsible of us not to look at every tool available,” she said. “I think this is the next, right, appropriate step.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift