Supply chain woes mean Colorado’s vast market of outdoors goods are more expensive, stuck on boats and even looking different
There are millions of dollars of camping equipment and apparel stuck on ships sitting in a harbor right now. That’s a big part of the reason the company Kelty — known for its backpacks and sleeping bags — will be raising prices later this month.
Problems in the global supply chain are creating big headaches for businesses — and for shoppers who are dealing with long waits and higher prices.
No industry has been spared, and that includes the vast market for outdoor recreation equipment. Coloradans should be prepared to pay a little more for gear when heading to the mountains for the foreseeable future.
Russ Rowell oversees Kelty and a number of other outdoor brands for Broomfield-based Exxel Outdoors. He said retailers had to absorb some of the recent shockwaves in order to keep prices manageable.
“If we were to pass on the full breadth of the impact … I don’t believe consumers would be camping anymore,” Rowell said.
Starting Nov. 15, the price of a Kelty camping chair will go from $109 to $139, he said.
The making of a supply chain traffic jam
The logjam started with a surge in demand for goods from people stuck at home during the pandemic, according to Randy White, the CEO of Wheel Pros, a Greenwood Village-based company that designs and manufactures specialized wheels, including those used on Jeeps and SUVs for driving off-road.
Supply chain snags have only continued to get worse, he said.
“It’s like once somebody steps on the brakes in traffic and all of a sudden you have hundreds of cars backed up on I-70. … It’s a chain reaction all the way through the system,” White said.
The network that gets stuff from point A to point B is a global web of ports and highways, ships and trucks and planes. And, of course — people. There are countless ways for things to go wrong. But up until recently, things mostly got to where they needed to be, when they needed to be there.
These days, there are hiccups every step of the way. For example, a COVID-19 case could shut down a port in Asia. Finally, it opens back up and ships leave, but when they get to the U.S., the ports are clogged. On top of that, there might not be enough workers to move the cargo after it’s unloaded.
It can start with simply getting goods aboard a ship, according to Steve Hoogendoorn, cofounder at Yeti Cycles, a mountain bike manufacturer in Golden. His shop booked space on a ship that never materialized.
“They call them ghost sailings, when they just don’t actually show up,” Hoogendoorn said.
The time it takes to get a shipment from Asia to his workshop in Golden has quadrupled, and it can be as long as four months, he said.
Shipping costs are skyrocketing, because everybody is desperate to get their products, and forced to pay whatever it takes. Before the pandemic, it cost between $1,500 to $2,000 to get a container from Asia, according to White. In September, it was $15,000, he said.
Now, even the products have to adapt
The various hold-ups are even changing the products themselves.
Dave Bombard owns Bishop, a two-person operation out of Edwards that handcrafts bindings for Telemark skiing. It’s an intricate process, involving roughly 60 parts, Bombard said. For one critical component, Bombard was using a particular thickness of sheet metal.
“This is the part that basically holds the boot in. … It is kind of the key. This one part holds the heel of the boot to the binding,” he said.
He ended up having to redesign the binding when his supplier told him he wasn’t going to get the material in time for winter. Bombard raised his prices by 10 percent.
Bishop designs skis, too. In an ominous sign for how long the problems will drag on, Bombard recently received word that he’ll need to cut next year’s order for skis by 20 percent due to the potential for ongoing material shortages.
Hoogendorn of Yeti says his company is thinking about ways they can source more of what they need domestically.
“The most basic way for it to get solved is for demand to drop off, for us to stop buying as much product … from Asia,” he said.
The kinks in the supply chain go way beyond outdoor equipment. Prices are going up everywhere — from the grocery store to the gas pump. The supply chain isn’t the only thing driving inflation, but it’s definitely making things worse.
Rowell of Exxel said his company waited as long as they could to raise prices, especially because camping is seen as an affordable vacation option. With everything getting so expensive, some families have tough choices to make when it comes to money.
“They’re not going to spend it on camping goods when they have to buy milk,” Rowell said.
‘The new normal:’ One year after the East Troublesome Fire made its historic run, federal agencies are adjusting to meet growing wildfire demand
Wildland firefighting is changing on a national scale.
For the past 20 years or so, fire officials and everyday community members have seen an unmistakable pattern of growing wildfire danger across the western United States.
According to data provided by the National Interagency Coordination Center, more than 3.2 million acres of forest burned in wildfires across the country on average between 1983 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2020, that average jumped to more than 7 million acres — over 10,977 square miles — and the only three recorded years with more than 10 million acres burned have all occurred since 2015.
There are a number of factors contributing to the trend, including past land management policies, climate change and expanded human development into the wildland urban interface, to name a few. But one thing is clear: America is burning.
“Overall, we are seeing an increase in large wildfire activity,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center based out of Boise, Idaho. “On average, we’re seeing fire years extend by about 60 days on either end of the spring or the fall. It’s been gradual over the last 20 years, but it’s definitely occurring.”
As the size and severity of wildfires continues to grow, so too does the demand on federal firefighting resources. And officials say they’re changing the way they approach firefighting to try and stay ahead of the game.
Preparing for the unexpected
A strong attack on the ground is key in wildfire suppression and containment, but it’s getting more dangerous to place firefighters in the path of what are becoming increasingly unpredictable blazes. The best example is here on the Western Slope.
In about a 24-hour period from Oct. 21-22, 2020, the East Troublesome Fire exploded, growing more than 87,000 acres — fueled by high winds, drought conditions and beetle-killed trees that served as the perfect kindling for the fire’s rapid growth.
That kind of fire behavior, especially overnight, is extraordinary by any measure. But officials say it’s now what they’re forced to plan for.
“I think we’re at the point now where that’s normal,” said Adam Bianchi, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “… We just have seen fire behavior change and do things differently that historically we have not, and we’re just learning differently with that. That goes also back into the safety aspect. Where we would historically feel comfortable in certain situations knowing how fire typically burns, now we may not be as aggressive. …
“With lower (relative humidity) and cooler temperatures, we felt like nighttime was always a good opportunity to make good headway on any sort of suppression or containment. That’s not necessarily the truth anymore, so we’ve had to adjust, I think, on our tactics and just accept that it’s not unprecedented. This is it: This is the new normal, and we need to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Perhaps the biggest change in the wildland culture over the past decade-plus is a movement away from more traditional and aggressive tactics on the ground, pulling firefighters away from situations where they could be killed or injured — futilely facing down a flaming front or moving through areas with dead-standing trees — and putting them in a position where they can actually succeed.
Firefighters often rely on firebreaks to find safe places to engage a fire, whether that’s a road, a natural barrier or an area that’s been treated by a hazardous fuels mitigation project. But those projects are expensive.
Bianchi said that in the past, companies would pay the U.S. Forest Service to come in and harvest timber. In places like Colorado, he said that industry has shrunk to the point where fuels-mitigation projects leave the service in the red, and it’s reliant on partnerships with local governments to subsidize the work. That means federal officials have to be careful with where they plan projects to get the most bang for their buck.
“That’s where we struggle, and so our philosophies had to change,” Bianchi said. “Instead of doing these really large, landscape-scale projects with a lot of acres, it’s about being strategic. We have a finite amount of money, and we really have to rely on partners … putting in dollars to help us manage it.”
Aviation resources are another major expense, but they’re also key in helping to reduce extreme fire behavior and giving firefighters on the ground a chance to do their work. Given the extensive demand for those aircraft in recent years, federal officials have had to prioritize what goes where.
Gardetto said the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group — a collaboration of fire managers from various agencies — meet twice daily to determine where the most highly requested resources should go.
“We have to be really strategic in years like this and like last year when we have a significant number of large wildfires burning across the landscape,” Gardetto said, adding that it’s similar to the military moving soldiers and military resources around during war.
“(It’s) involved, and in some cases, (resources) can be moved daily or even a couple times in a day with something like aerial resources that can move quickly,” she explained.
Gardetto said that federal wildland fire agencies are looking into expanding the nation’s fleet of aircraft to meet growing demand along with additional employees to facilitate the associated contracting work.
“It’s not just adding the actual metal that’s flying in the air; it’s all the support personnel that come along with it,” she said.
Firebreaks and slurry drops do little good without men and women on the ground doing the dirty work.
Gardetto said there is an ongoing effort at the national level to transform the wildland firefighting workforce. She noted that the Bureau of Land Management is working to create a ratio of 80% full-time to 20% seasonal employees — she said about one-third of employees are currently permanent — and that other federal agencies are working on similar initiatives.
With wildfire season rapidly expanding into the fall and winter months in some areas of the country and more mitigation projects needed, a more permanent wildland workforce would be ideal. But lately, federal agencies have had difficulties recruiting and retaining those firefighters. Officials say the problem is poor wages, limited benefits and brutal working conditions.
“We’re seeing people leave and take other jobs, and we’re seeing competition with private industry,” Gardetto said. “Some places like Costco are offering higher starting wages than entry-level fire positions. … We want to increase wages to give firefighters a living wage and then ensure that they have meaningful careers: providing permanent positions with benefits and increasing our workforce so that we can allow firefighters to take time off in the summer to ensure a work-life balance. Right now, being a wildland firefighter often means being gone from your family and away from home for months at a time.”
There has been a push in Congress to address funding issues. The infrastructure funding bill would allocate about $3.4 billion toward wildfire risk reduction efforts, including hazardous fuels reduction programs, community wildfire mitigation grants and wage increases for firefighters.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, co-chair of the bipartisan wildfire caucus, last month passed a pair of measures through the U.S. House of Representatives centered on improving housing opportunities and mental health programs for federal firefighters as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, Neguse and his co-sponsors unveiled the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named for a smokejumper who died in the line of duty in New Mexico earlier this year. If signed into law, the bill would raise federal firefighter pay to at least $20 an hour, ensure firefighters earn retirement benefits and create a new federal wildland firefighter employment classification so they’re recognized for the dangerous work they’re doing, among other changes.
According to Neguse, federal firefighters are currently classified as forestry technicians, make an average entry wage of about $13.45 per hour and are infrequently provided with adequate health care benefits.
Finding solutions together
Wildfires are changing here in Colorado and around the country, and finding and implementing the right solutions to fight back isn’t going to be easy.
Officials emphasized that in addition to expanding federal and state firefighting capabilities, local communities need to understand their role in preventing catastrophic wildfires.
“Historically, many communities have had the attitude of, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to us,’” Gardetto said. “So they don’t take proactive measures to reduce the wildfire risk around their communities.
“That’s something that, while the federal government can assist with grants and conduct treatments around communities on federal properties, it’s really the responsibility of homeowners to make sure their property is resistant to fire. Thankfully, that’s something we’re seeing. People are making firewise efforts. We’re seeing more firewise communities. However, we still have a ways to go.”
Streamflows in southern half of upper Colorado River basin declining faster
New climate data that shows a north/south split in streamflow declines in the Colorado River basin could have implications for water managers as they navigate how to address water shortages.
This month, Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, presented data that shows when comparing records from the past 20 years to those from most of the 20th century, rivers in the southern half of the upper Colorado River basin have lost a larger percentage of flows than rivers in the northern part of the basin.
For example, flows on the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, have declined by 30%, and flows on the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have declined by 21%. Flows on the Yampa River near Maybell and the Colorado River near Glenwood Springs have each lost just 6% of flows.
“We do think it’s going to dry more in the south and less in the north, and we should at some point see a gradient, and sure enough, that has popped up at some of these gauges,” Udall said.
Udall presented his findings at the University of Colorado Getches-Wilkinson Center’s 41st annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources, which was simulcast as part of the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar on Oct. 1.
Udall analyzed the Bureau of Reclamation’s natural flow data, which is an estimate of the flow that would have been observed at a stream gauge if there were no reservoirs or diversions present. Then he compared 1906-99 data to 2000-19 data to see how much the flows have declined.
Udall said the data was just an initial look; more research needs to be done, and there is at least one outlier that bucks the trend: The White River, which flows through the northwest corner of Colorado, has experienced a 19% decline in flows at the Watson gauge, which is just over the state line in Utah.
“Are the natural flows conveying accurately what’s going on? I just don’t know,” Udall said. “When you begin to do science, you come up with these results that bear more digging.”
A 2017 paper co-authored by Udall and Jonathan Overpeck found that an average of one-third of the Colorado River’s flow loss could be attributed to warming temperatures. Higher temperatures may even cancel out any increases in precipitation.
“The hotter it is, the thirstier the air is for water, so it’s going to pull more moisture out of the soil or the crops or the reservoir or whatever the case may be,” CSU climatologist Russ Schumacher said. “As the snow starts to melt, it has to go back into recharging the soil. That’s the first place it goes, and not as much ends up in the rivers.”
Schumacher said the north/south flow-loss differential is consistent with what climate predictions have shown.
“The interior Southwest of the United States is a place that is especially vulnerable because it’s a dry place to begin with,” he said. “Adding more heat into the system, you get more evapotranspiration and everything else, and we are seeing rivers decline there.”
The dividing line between drier and wetter is somewhere near the middle latitude of Colorado and bisects the state into northern and southern halves. Also, it is roughly where the main stem of the Colorado River flows through the state. But as the impacts of climate change worsen, high pressure over the deserts of the Southwest could creep northward and expand the more intense streamflow losses already happening in the southwestern part of the state to the northern half of Colorado.
“The difficulty with climate change is that it’s changing,” Udall said. “This is a moving target throughout the 21st century, and every time you think you have it figured out, something else is going to happen.”
Equity in demand management
The north/south difference in flow declines could have implications for how Colorado water managers develop a potential water-savings plan. State officials are currently investigating a program known as demand management that would pay water users to cut back and send the saved water to a special storage pool in Lake Powell. The water would be an insurance policy against a Colorado River Compact call.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.
A major topic of demand-management discussions has been proportionality and how to design a program that ensures that no particular river basin experiences more negative economic or environmental impacts than another. Another question is: If there is a compact call, how would state engineers administer it so that already water-short basins aren’t forced to cut back even more?
“(The north/south flow-loss differential) would be an interesting input into that, especially in the area of equity,” Udall said. “If the upper part of the (Colorado River) main stem is actually not suffering very much but the San Juan is really suffering, what does that mean for who should help contribute to the shortfall?”
Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said he has noticed a warming trend in southwest Colorado and that irrigators have seen an increasing number of shortages over the past 20 years. He has been monitoring the demand-management discussions and questions surrounding proportionality.
“This year, we were substantially worse than the rest of Colorado,” Curtis said. “You overlay the question, if this is a real pattern, how does this play into equitability? You can’t really get blood out of a turnip. There wasn’t any water to demand manage this year.”
State officials say they are striving to avoid disproportionate impacts on certain basins or water users as they continue their investigation into a demand-management program. Colorado Water Conservation Board Deputy Section Chief Amy Ostdiek said climate change and drought factor into everything the organization does.
“Talking about the southwest corner of the state, just what we are seeing on the ground is that it has been heavily impacted by drought and that has a number of implications,” she said. “In terms of demand management, there are going to be issues and concerns that are specific to each area of the state, for sure.”
But regardless of how the flow loss breaks down among the different tributaries of the upper basin, the overall streamflow trend is downward. According to Udall’s data, the Colorado River at the all-important Lee Ferry — just downstream from Lake Powell near the Arizona-Utah border, which is the dividing line between the upper and lower basins and the point at which upper-basin water deliveries to the lower basin are measured — has lost 17% of its flow. Despite a near-average snowpack, 2021 saw the second-worst unregulated inflow into Lake Powell, at 31% of average. This summer, federal officials began emergency releases from upper-basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to maintain the ability to make hydroelectric power.
Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the River District and co-author of “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” said it is this bigger picture that should have upper-basin water managers worried, especially when it comes to plans for future water projects.
“We are thinking it, but we aren’t saying it out loud: There’s no more water,” Kuhn said. “There’s just not a lot of water for development. It’s an obvious conclusion right now. It’s the elephant in the room in the upper basin.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more information, go to AspenJournalism.org.
Blue Mesa Reservoir releases impacting lake recreation
BLUE MESA RESERVOIR — In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.
That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.
As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.
Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.
“There are tons of people who would like to be out here boating and are very disappointed,” Loken said. “Normally on Labor Day weekend, you can barely find a place to park. So it’s definitely been a big hit to us as a business for sure.”
The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed for the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible through the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open through Labor Day, but the boat ramp has closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is restricted to small boats only and is scheduled to close after Labor Day.
“We are just trying to make it through the holiday weekend and then we will be shutting up this marina too,” Loken said.
The Bureau announced July 16 that it would begin emergency releases through early October from three Upper Basin reservoirs: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo, on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to prop up water levels at Lake Powell to preserve the ability to make hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs is expected to boost levels at Powell by about 3 feet.
The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.
Although the secretary of the Interior can authorize emergency releases without coordination from the states or local entities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notice from the bureau. Under normal drought-response operations, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers before making releases.
“We had very little time to handle this decision that was made that none of us have any power over,” Loken said.
John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called a clumsy execution of the releases. McClow has also served on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited another couple weeks or another month to release that water from Blue Mesa to get it to Lake Powell,” McClow said. “It goes back to consultation and timing. Had they even asked, it would have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’”
Last month at Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference — a gathering of water managers, researchers and legislators in Steamboat Springs — Rebecca Mitchell, CWCB’s executive director and the state’s representative to the UCRC, told the audience that the impacts of ending the boating season early at Blue Mesa trickle down to all Coloradoans.
“That means dollars in Colorado. That is who we are in Colorado,” she said. “It’s definitely had an impact in that local community when we talk about the recreation. That is heavy.”
Mitchell said water managers in the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Utah) will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the reservoir releases and figuring out how to quantify those impacts, which she called devastating. The states will work with the bureau to develop a plan for how to send water to Lake Powell in future years, taking into consideration the timing, magnitude and duration of the releases, she said.
“Where can the states and the bureau make the best decisions to lessen the impacts?” she said.
The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitors centers and boat ramps that run the 20-mile length of the reservoir. According to numbers provided by the Park Service, Curecanti gets nearly a million visitors a year. The reservoir is popular among anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fishing. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs — along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.
Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce Director Celeste Helminski said her organization is planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help refill Blue Mesa.
“The water definitely has me concerned for the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer recreationists who come and spend the whole summer at several of the campgrounds. It’s just going to take a lot to replace that water. It’s going to take awhile to get back to levels of what recreationists come for.”
Bureau spokesperson Justyn Liff could not provide any insight into how the timing decision for the releases was made, but pointed out that although lake recreation was impacted, downstream rafting and fishing in the canyon are getting a boost from the roughly 300 cubic-feet-per-second extra water that the releases provide. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel diversion, which takes a large portion of the river’s outflow from the Aspinall Unit for delivery to downstream irrigators, was running around 600 cfs the first few days of September, according to USGS stream gauge data. This is a critical data point for boaters running the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge sections of the river, which are below the stream gauge. At 600 cfs, the river is flowing 11% above the median for this time of year.
“If we had waited six weeks, that would have been six weeks less of commercial rafting/guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” Liff said.
Although the local impacts to recreation are acute, the impacts of not being able to make hydropower at Lake Powell would probably be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are known as “cash register” dams. The power they produce is used to repay the costs of building the project, maintain operations and provide power to millions of people.
The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, including to some power providers in Colorado. According to Water Education Colorado, electric costs will surge as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower because of declining water levels.
The bureau’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet, in order to provide a buffer that protects hydropower generation; if levels fall below 3,490, all power production would stop. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full, at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began filling in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to projections released by the bureau in July, Lake Powell has a 79% chance of falling below the 3,525 threshold in the next year. The emergency releases are intended to address this.
“A loss of power generation is a pretty significant issue compared to a few months of boating on Blue Mesa,” McClow said. “Locally, yes, it hurts, but in the big picture, I don’t know if you can make a fair comparison.”
As water levels at Blue Mesa continue to fall, Loken worries that this may be just the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.
“(The releases) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We are just going to end up with an empty Lake Powell and a bunch of empty reservoirs upstream. I think the powers that be really need to put pencil to paper and figure this out.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, go to www.aspenjournalism.org.
‘The only tool we have:’ CDOT turns to response strategies following multiple mudslides on I-70
Over the past few weeks, mudslides and flash flood warnings have prompted continual closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. A result of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, the steep slopes surrounding the interstate in the canyon have become increasingly susceptible to these large debris flows. And really, there’s not much anyone can do.
“We’ve all known that this risk of mudslides was here,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.
Immediately following the Grizzly Creek Fire, the Forest Service sent out a Burn Area Emergency Response team, also known as a BAER team, to assess damages and risk in the area as well as provide possible mitigation solutions.
What the team — which comprises specialists like hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, soil scientists and engineers — found was that many of the drainages in Glenwood Canyon burned severely. Couple that with the steepness of the slopes in the canyon, and it equals a higher risk of debris flow.
“The problem with the high-severity burn is that it cooks the soil,” Boyd said. “Soil normally is full of all kinds of living organisms, microorganisms, roots, seeds, those sorts of things, and if the fire burns really severely, it just kills all that.”
This severe burn also, according to Boyd, makes the soil more hydrophobic, so the water isn’t absorbed into the soil — “it just comes right off.”
“The other challenge with that is reseeding isn’t going to take very well in those highly, severely burned areas,” Boyd said. “Most of Grizzly Creek, if you go up in the burned area, is recovering naturally; grasses and forbs in the area where it was brush, those are all coming back.”
Without this regeneration, these mudslides will continue to occur with little to no vegetation to hold back the debris. This is particularly true as summer precipitation — which often dumps a lot of rain in a small area over a short period of time — continues to cause these debris flows.
“For the next few years, mudslides will be a problem,” Boyd said. “Over time, it gets better as the fire recovers more. Eventually, these severely burned areas will start coming back.”
So, what the Forest Service can, and will continue, to do, according to Boyd, is monitor the area and continue to look for opportunities to mitigate this risk.
Safety closures first
Instead, a lot of the mitigation efforts have been focused on these closures, which protect the safety of motorists on I-70.
“We’re talking about nature and nature’s process, that’s pretty tough to mitigate,” said Tracy Trulove, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson. “CDOT is always going to put safety at the top of the list for what we’re doing in the canyon.”
Earlier this year, CDOT completed several projects related to rock and debris flow in the canyon. Spending around $1.7 million in federal funding for emergency repairs, the department constructed a number of barriers intended to mitigate smaller sloughs of rock and debris and prevent scattering of smaller rocks into the roadway areas. This also included improvements and debris removal efforts along existing fences and barriers.
Even with these fences and precautions in place, it’s incredibly challenging to predict where the debris flows will occur.
In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map that identified areas where there was a high likelihood for these larger debris flows. So far, this map had identified the three areas where debris flows have run onto the highway as areas with a 40% to 100% chance of doing so. However, even with these models, it’s impossible to predict these occurrences.
“There’s just so many areas in that canyon that have the potential for debris flow,” Trulove said.
Not only are the flows difficult to predict, but the state of the slopes have created debris flows that would be hard for the fences to catch.
“It’s a lot of mud and water and a very soupy mix that’s coming down,” Trulove said. “So even with those barriers in place, you’re still going to get a decent amount of material that comes through.”
So far, the mudslides that have made their way onto the interstate have had minimal impacts to the road. According to Trulove, there has only been minimal damage to things like drains and some damage to the guardrail, which was already in “desperate need.” Most of the costs have been associated with cleanup operations and resources.
According to Victoria Graham, a spokesperson from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, the governor requested funds for improving I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in September 2020.
“The state has requested up to $10 million in federal funding and been approved for approximately $2.5 million in emergency repair funding, which is 100% reimbursable, and $2.8 million in permanent repairs, which is 80% reimbursable,” Graham wrote. “Additional funding to protect local community water supplies and infrastructure was passed during this last legislative session working with those communities, the state Legislature and Department of Natural Resources.”
Matthew Inzeo, CDOT’s communication director, wrote in an email that the emergency repairs funding reimbursed “funds that were spent in the immediate response to the Grizzly Creek Fire last year,” which includes the improvements mentioned above.
According to Trulove, CDOT isn’t aware of any new money earmarked for continued mitigation.
In terms of the long-term revegetation work, that will fall under federal funding for the Forest Service. “In a recent call with President Biden, Vice President Harris and key cabinet officials, Gov. Polis underscored the post-fire watershed and mudslide impacts,” Graham wrote.
Just this week, the Colorado Transportation Commission approved $238 million via Senate Bill 260 to address “critical statewide multimodal needs,” according to the press release. However, no improvements to I-70 in the canyon made the list. This is because, according to Trulove, transportation funding has been a challenge statewide, and there are many roadways, including Glenwood Canyon before the fire, that require rockfall mitigation and resources.
“The Grizzly Creek burn scar has added another layer of complexity,” she said, adding that it also doesn’t help that “this burn scar is right over one of the major arteries in Colorado.”
‘The only tool we have’
Instead of mitigating risks, CDOT has been concerned with merely responding to these risks as they occur. Just this week, two separate flash flood warnings prompted the closure of the interstate through the canyon.
CDOT starts preparing once it receives a flash flood watch from the National Weather Service, sending out maintenance teams on standby at several closure locations along the highway.
And then, once the watch is upgraded to a warning, “When we get a warning, we’re moving to a safety closure for the canyon in an effort to not have vehicles in there when a potential debris flow happens,” Trulove said.
Of this response, Trulove said, “Right now that is really the only tool we have.”
In Eagle County, the Sheriff’s office is also watching for these warnings and closures, prompting its own response on Cottonwood Pass.
Over the past few years, Cottonwood Pass, a local and scenic roadway, has become inundated with traffic as closures in Glenwood Canyon continue to increase. The roadway has seen its fair share of crashes, including a truck rollover earlier this summer.
Matt Koch, who has been an Eagle County resident for 15 years, drives Cottonwood Pass every day in the summer to get to his job in Garfield County. However, over the past few years, closures on I-70 have led to an influx of “weekend warriors and tourists,” on the roadway, Koch said.
“Basically, as soon as the EC Alert goes out that there’s flash flood watch, I basically have to leave work and jump in my car and head home,” Koch said. “I’m in the very fortunate position that my boss is very understanding, and they let me leave. I think about the guy or gal who doesn’t have that luxury; they have to be there until the job is done.”
This can often lead to locals being stranded and unable to get home from work.
“Many locals work and live on both sides of Cottonwood Pass, making it a very important route for them to utilize when the Canyon is closed,” wrote John Harris, from the Eagle County Road and Bridge department, in an email. “We are concerned about the viability of the route and passenger safety with increased traffic. Cottonwood Pass is not designed to handle a large volume of traffic.”
This situation has led the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office — in partnership with the town of Gypsum and Eagle County Road and Bridge — to create an incident management plan. In the event that CDOT closes I-70, the Sheriff’s Office will send out deputies to both sides of the pass where they will manage traffic until Eagle County Road and Bridge arrives and takes over management. In managing traffic, those stationed are slowing traffic and making sure those commercial vehicles and others over 35-feet in length are not driving over the pass.
“Narrow sections, steep grades and sharp curves make it difficult to handle the traffic during closures without the boots-on-the-ground traffic control the county and its partners have been providing,” Harris wrote.
The incident plan also includes investing in a number of warning and educational signs for out-of-state visitors and drivers that take on the pass.
It’s worth noting that CDOT specifically asks motorists not to use Cottonwood Pass as well as Hagerman Pass, Eagle/Thomasville Road or other county or Forest Service roads in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties as a detour — although GPS routing systems will tell drivers to use those roads. Instead, the department recommends a northern alternate route using Colorado Highway 9, US Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 13. Really, there’s no good way around the closures.
Koch has noted these interventions and said that while they are helping — “I haven’t gotten stuck yet” — it’s not enough. In a letter to the Vail Daily, Koch referred to the road as “ill-prepared and ill-equipped.”
On the phone, Koch noted that guardrails and metering could help improve the drive and prevent accidents. “I don’t think that Cottonwood should be a viable alternative route. I think it should remain quiet and sleepy for the ranchers as a scenic byway,” he said.
According to Harris, the county has made some road surface improvements and has “been in discussions on different levels of improvements and costs associated with them.” However, at this time, there is no planned funding to help aid the project.
Koch has been reaching out to local and state representatives to try and raise some noise about the pass, and it’s need — as well as I-70’s need — for repairs and financial investments.
“I know it’s an astronomical amount of money, but when you start stacking that against all the commerce that gets stopped and the trickle down of having 70 closed for a day or a couple of hours. The supply chain just gets incredibly disrupted, and it’s not just Coloradans, it’s everywhere, it’s national,” he said. “I would encourage the other travelers to speak up and contact their representatives, and if we unify and make our voices heard, action will hopefully be taken.”
Sylvan Fire at 19% containment Monday morning; weather should help firefighters this week
The Sylvan Fire, which started June 20, in Eagle County has reached 19% containment and remains at 3,775 acres as of Monday morning, according to Incident Commander Dan Dallas.
“The weather this week should favor continued progress on fireline construction and preparation for future burning operations,” Dallas said in a Monday morning update. “A few new crews have arrived, and two additional hotshot crews are expected soon. This will help with completing some of the more difficult portions of the fireline.”
Crews have completed a direct fireline from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road. South of Sylvan Lake, firefighters are prepping the primary containment line along the moist, grassy stream bottom parallel to the Eagle-Thomasville Road.
Crews are also working to contain the portion of the fire that moved south of the Mount Thomas Trail and ridgeline. Once they have completed this section, they will then clear an indirect fireline extending westward along Mount Thomas Trail as a contingency against southward spread of the fire in the steep, inaccessible portions that are unsafe for crews to work in.
Dallas said the favorable weather over the weekend and more moisture on the way is helping moderate the situation.
“Rain received in recent days will continue to keep fuels moist while moderating fire behavior. Fire spread will be limited and consisting mostly of smoldering and creeping,” Dallas said.
Though lightning is suspected as cause of the fire, the incident is still under investigation.
For the latest information about pre-evacuation or evacuation notices or fire restrictions on non-Federal lands, visit www.ecemergency.org. Officials are also reminding the public that wildfires are a No Drone Zone, and if you fly, they can’t.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
UPDATES: Sylvan Fire containment at 10% going into Sunday night
David Boyd with the U.S. Forest Service said containment on the Sylvan Fire remains at 10 percent as crews headed into nightfall on Sunday.
The wildfire burning south of Eagle remains the largest priority fire in the Rocky Mountain region, with 361 personnel currently working the nearly 6-square mile blaze. Although still under investigation, the fire is suspected to have been caused by lightning.
Boyd said the size on the fire remains unchanged, at 3,775 acres, but it has moved slightly.
“Some of that is growth here and there, but some of that is the mapping catching up,” Boyd said. “Weather is helping us out, a lot.”
High humidity and spotted showers, combined with the occasional downpour, have assisted firefighters in recent days.
About a third of an inch of rain fell on the fire on Saturday and Sunday morning, bringing the accumulation in recent days to nearly an inch total.
The fireline, which travels from Sylvan Lake westward to the powerline road, represents the first bit of containment from crews.
“Ten percent of the line is where we want it to be,” Boyd said. “The weather has moderated the behavior of the fire, which has allowed us to make a lot of progress, continuing to build lines and strengthen them. We’ve got a few more days of weather like this, and that will be very helpful.”
Boyd said the overhead views of the fire show areas of smoldering, with heavy smoke, indicating that if the humidity drops again, and the winds pick up, the fire will become more active.
And some of the fires that may be taking place once the rain stops might be conducted by the crews on scene, as well, in an effort to improve fire lines, Boyd said.
“There’s some areas where we’re going to either light some areas ourselves, when the conditions are right, and have that burn to the firelines, or allow the fire to get to places where we can effectively hold it,” Boyd said. “Even though weather has been really moderate, we still have some days coming, in the coming days, where will see more fire activity.”
The wet weather can be good and bad for firefighters, as the water helps put down the blaze and helps crews build fire lines.
“But the wet, slippery conditions make the work more difficult and increase safety concerns for driving and foot travel,” said Dan Dallas, the incident commander for the Rocky Mountain Type I Incident Management Team assigned to the blaze. “Fortunately, no serious injuries have occurred thus far on the incident, and we continue to make public and firefighter safety our highest priority.”
During a Friday evening Facebook community meeting, Rob Powell, the operations section chief for the fire, noted that the resources at risk — an Xcel Energy transmission line and the Eagle and Gypsum watersheds — earned the priority designation.
The Sylvan Fire has split into two main branches. Crews are attacking one branch along the Eagle Thomasville Road, which will be the primary fire line.
“We’re working really hard on that 400 road and getting that dug in, so that the fire doesn’t push harder and higher when it dries out,” said Michelle Kelly a public information officer working the fire.
Kelly called the Sylvan Fire a “mosaic fire” with patches of green and black throughout the forest — and those green spots could become troublesome in the coming days when it is expected to dry out.
She said fire officials are always cautious about putting containment line on a map, wanting to be absolutely certain that an ember can’t cross a fire line when temperatures dry out or wind kicks up — which is what happened when the fire had its big blowup earlier in the week.
“We really want to make sure that we’re cold trailing, and that there’s not something like that could cross the road,” she said.
Metro Denver counties to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions with move to Level Clear this weekend
Much of metro Denver will see all remaining county-level COVID-19 public health restrictions lifted this weekend, although people still will be required to wear masks in specific indoor settings as the statewide order remains in place at least until next month.
Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Broomfield counties confirmed Tuesday they will move from Level Blue to a new phase called Level Clear on Sunday.
Denver’s public health agency stopped short of committing to the move to Level Clear, but said the city anticipates “aligning” with neighboring counties.
Once the metro counties move to Level Clear, restaurants, bars, offices and other indoor settings can operate at 100% capacity with no additional requirements, according to the Tri-County Health Department’s public health order.
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment “is working with regional and state partners to evaluate the potential restrictions after the expirations of our current public health order,” spokesperson Clarissa Boggs-Blake said in an email Tuesday. “We anticipate aligning with other neighboring jurisdictions as well as adopting by reference any remaining state public health order requirements.”
Boebert’s first town hall gets off to a rough start
Rep. Lauren Boebert’s first teleconference town hall got off to a rough start Thursday night when two early callers accused her of treason and affiliating with white supremacists.
Boebert, R-Colo.,a Rifle restaurant owner who won election to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District in November, talked with constituents for nearly one hour.
One initial caller asked her why she was photographed in the past with people allegedly flashing white supremacy symbols. That was a reference to a photo of Boebert posing with members of the American Patriots III% and Bikers for Trump at a Second Amendment rally in Denver in December 2019.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry you’ve been deceived by conspiracy theories,” Boebert responded.
A few minutes later, a woman identified as Nicole from Pueblo asked, “When you are tried for treason, which prison do you want to do your time in?”
Boebert and the moderator quickly dismissed the question and moved on to the next person. For the remainder of the event, Boebert was mostly thrown softball questions from people who expressed support for her.
Boebert sent a tweet at 2:52 p.m. Thursday announcing the town hall. Interested people were directed to register at a website. Registration was closed at 4:15 p.m., three hours before the event.
Mark from Montrose thanked Boebert for “everything she has done” for the Western Slope and 3rd District. He said she is standing up for Constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, which he said is constantly under attack.
“For those who oppose you and those who criticize you on this town hall meeting, it’s going to do nothing but rally the base and we are going to come out in full force with lots of money to support you, to re-elect you,” the caller said.
Boebert thanked him and called his comments “sweet.”
“I want to let you to know I am doing everything I can to promote the things that matter most to Americans right now,” Boebert said. “We need to open our economy. We need to get businesses open. We need to have our schools open. These are all things that are very important. I think we’re all kind of over the politics of personal destruction.”
Sarah from Monte Vista said she had intended to ask the Congresswoman what has been the most frustrating aspect of her job, but that became apparent listening to the criticism of some callers. “I’m so sorry you have to deal with those things,” the woman said. She asked what Boebert would say to her critics.
“I think my message would be that I wake up every morning fighting for freedom and prosperity,” Boebert said. “I want every American to have every opportunity and more than I had. I want our children to grow up in a free nation. I don’t want socialism for our children. I don’t want government to step in and say they know best and they know how to run our lives better than we do. The American people are smart and sometimes it feels like government doesn’t trust its people, and so I’m hear to be that voice. I’m not a politician.”
Boebert continued to say she is motivated to help the people of the district and that “attacks” won’t intimidate her.
“Please note that the negativity, the attacks, it’s not deterring me,” Boebert said. “I pray for those who are in opposition. It’s OK, and I understand it’s not unique to me and I hope you all understand that as well.
“A lot of these attacks that you’re seeing, they’re cookie cutter and they’re occurring across the nation, unfortunately to good people who are in this for the right reasons, to serve,” Boebert continued. “I’m not letting that distract me from the work I was sent here to do.”
In addition to taking audience comments and questions, Boebert’s team asked the telephone audience to answer poll questions and she outlined her legislative agenda.
Boebert said she is excited to serve on the House Natural Resources Committee.
“I’ll pursue policies that increase access and ensure multiple-use for sportsmen and other public land enthusiasts,” she said. “I’ll allow for responsible energy production while protecting the environment, reduce our dependency on rare earth and critical minerals from China where we know that child and slave labor is often used, empower tribes, increase storage and protect precious water supplies and promote job creation while removing unnecessary regulations and red tape.”
She also serves on the Budget Committee, where she will work to reduce the national debt.
“America is nearly $28 trillion in debt,” she said. “The federal government doesn’t have a revenue problem. The federal government has a spending problem. It is far past time that Congress gets its fiscal house in order, prioritizes the values of the American people and puts an end to Washington’s wasteful spending.”
The town hall ended with Boebert dismissing the need for National Guard protection and fencing around the U.S. Capitol despite the mob riot that resulted in five people dying on Jan. 5.
“I had the honor of meeting with a large group of the National Guard today and just speaking with them and letting them know how valued they are, but also how their not exactly needed here at this time,” Boebert said.
She then questioned why a wall remains around the Capitol when the wall at the United States border with Mexico hasn’t been completed. She recently visited the border wall and saw eight-foot gaps and missing sections of fence because “construction has been halted, equipment is lying on the ground to rot.”
“However, some people in Washington, D.C., felt threatened and immediately erected a very strong wall. It’s a great wall, it’s a beautiful wall. President Trump would have loved this wall,” Boebert said with a laugh. “It’s in the wrong location. We certainly don’t need that around the Capitol and I’ve actually been talking to my team about strategies to get that moved and I would love to keep you up to date on that, to see where we go with that because we have some fun strategies with this wall and where to take it.
“It is unfortunate to see,” she continued. “People guard what they care about and it’s very, very clear that those that are in power here care about themselves and President Trump wanted to guard our nations border because he cares about the American people. You protect what you value and bringing in 25,000 National Guard, that’s a little unnecessary for a mostly virtual inauguration.”
“The wall is unnecessary and needs to be taken down from around our Capitol,” Boebert concluded.