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As commission candidate urges countywide mask order, commissioner highlights opposition to the idea in western Garfield County

A candidate for Garfield County commissioner says the current commissioners are putting politics over public health by not requiring people to wear face coverings while in public.

Leslie Robinson of Rifle is running for the District 3 Board of County Commissioners seat as a Democrat in November against incumbent Republican Mike Samson.

She said during comments via video conference before the county commissioners on Monday that Garfield County should follow the lead of neighboring resort counties in requiring masks be worn in public places.

Leslie Robinson, candidate for Garfield County commissioner.

“Don’t let the politics of a few dictate COVID health and safety decisions that will protect the many,” Robinson said.

Garfield County should enact a temporary order requiring face coverings while in places of business and where social distancing is not possible, same as the municipalities of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, she said.

Face coverings should not be a political issue, Robinson said, adding “it’s time to believe in the medical science behind the use of masks to slow down contagion.”

Reached on Tuesday, Samson said the vast majority of constituents who have contacted him are opposed to a mask requirement, though people on the eastern end of the county are more supportive, he said.

“If you look at the stats, the majority of Covid cases appear to be in the eastern end of the county,” Samson said. That includes Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, which do require masks within their city limits, and New Castle, which does not. Combined, those communities account for 65% of the county’s cases since the outbreak began in early March.

Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson.
Alex Zorn / Citizen Telegram

Personally, Samson said he does wear a mask when entering businesses, especially busier ones such as City Market or Walmart.

“One of the major reasons why I do it is because a lot of people know who I am, and it’s good for me to set an example for others,” Samson said. “People need to use good judgment and common sense, and if you’re going to be in a situation where you’re close to other people, it’s a way to protect them and yourself.”

Robinson’s comments also elicited a response during the Monday meeting from District 1 Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who is not up for reelection this year.

He also said the constituent comments he’s heard, especially in the Rifle area, are “three-to-one against” requiring masks.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“Rifle, Parachute, Silt … none of those city councils have come to us asking for (a mask requirement), and any of them could have done it on their own,” Jankovsky said.

Jankovsky acknowledged public health suggestions that face masks could reduce the virus spread by 5% to 10%. But hospital capacity in the county and statewide is a better benchmark to make decisions, rather than the number of new cases, he said.

“Our hospitals are not at capacity,” he said, adding later in direct response to Robinson, “the individuals you’re trying to represent are opposed to face masks.”

Although county commissioners represent certain districts within the county, they are elected countywide by voters from Carbondale to Parachute.

Robinson also noted that a disproportionate number of those who have contracted COVID-19 in Garfield County, 60%, are Latino. That percentage has increased from 49% in early June.

“I wonder what more can the county be doing to reach out to that community to educate and stop this contagion among our most vulnerable populations,” she said.

Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long acknowledged in her regular report to the county commissioners Monday that the recent surge in cases among Latinos is a concern. That likely can be attributed to virus spread in workplaces, especially within the tourism and service industries, as well as construction job sites and even the practice of carpooling to work.

While carpooling is a good thing to do during normal times, Long said, “this is maybe not the time to do that.”


Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version with comments from Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson.

Looking to make tracks: first phase of new 18-mile mountain bike trail system to begin this fall

Mountain bikers will soon have more options for single-track fun in western Garfield County as the city of Rifle and the Rifle Area Mountain Bike Organization start moving forward on carving a new trail system through the pinyon and juniper trees north of Rifle.

“Its going to be such a great system out there, I think it really is going to a be a big draw for us. It will be a pretty big deal once we get enough miles out there, it compares to a lot of other systems in Colorado,” Rifle City Planner Nathan Lindquist said. “It’s going to be really cool.”

The first phase of the 18-mile project is expected to cost just over $90,000, which organizers hope to start the beginning of September, will include nearly 7 miles of single-track trails.

“We really tried to minimize the crossings, they did a pretty good job with designing it that way,” Lindquist said. “You’ll climb uphill to the left of the trail, and then when you’re coming back to the trailhead you’ll be on the right side.”

Lindquist there will be only one major crossing of the trail, and one smaller crossing if you want to do more laps around the loop.

The city has contracted Aaron Mattix with Gumption Trail Works as the designated trail builder.

RAMBO board members met with Mattix on Sunday for a walkthrough of where the planned trails will snake through the BLM land that surrounds the Rifle Arch 9 miles north of Rifle. 

Board members are scheduling trail build training for local crew leaders/board members who have volunteered as trail crew leaders. 

“Their role is to supervise the larger volunteer trail build days we have coming up in September — we don’t have anything scheduled for those yet, but the plan is to train-up through August,” RAMBO president Erik Villasenor said. 

Organizers hope temperatures become milder moving into the fall and they ask for volunteers to help build trails. People interested in volunteering can watch the RAMBO Facebook page for dates to sign up; a new website is also in development.

See Thursday’s edition of the Rifle Citizen Telegram for more on this story.


Helicopter crash in South Rifle area sends two to hospital, touches off brush fire

Federal aviation inspectors have been called in to investigate a Saturday morning helicopter crash south of Rifle that sent the two occupants to the hospital and touched off a small brush fire.

Rifle Police Chief Tommy Klein said the crash was reported at 7:36 a.m. Saturday by a couple who were passing by on nearby Interstate 70 and witnessed the crash.

The two-person helicopter went down just inside Rifle city limits, beneath the Xcel Energy power lines south of Airport Road and the Colorado Mountain College Rifle Campus.

Xcel Energy spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo confirmed that the helicopter was carrying a third-party subcontracting crew that was taking pictures for future work on the lines.

“What we know is the two crew members were taken to the hospital for observation,” she said in an emailed statement. “Our thoughts are with the crew members and their families. We will be working with officials in their investigation.”

The pilot and a passenger, both males, were reportedly able to get out of the wrecked chopper before it erupted in flames, Klein said. They were transported to Grand River Hospital for treatment. An update on their condition was not available as of Sunday evening.

Klein said it was a smaller two-person private helicopter, but couldn’t say what type. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration arrived on the scene Saturday afternoon and will conduct the formal accident investigation.

Also on scene initially was Rifle Garfield County Airport Director Brian Condie, as well as officers from the Rifle Police Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. Colorado River Fire Rescue wildland fire crews were able to contain the resulting fire following the crash, according to a Sheriff’s Office press release.

Burning rubble from a helicopter crash south of Rifle that sent two people to the nearby Grand River Hospital early Saturday, July 11, 2020.
Courtesy GCSO

Helicopters are commonly used to conduct power line inspections, often with infrared photography to check for trouble spots. 

A fatal helicopter crash in the Divide Creek area south of Silt in January 2014 also involved a crew that was inspecting power lines for Holy Cross Energy. The crash killed all three people on board, including longtime Holy Cross employee Larry Shaffer from Rifle, HotShot Infrared Inspections worker Christopher Gaskill of Aurora, and longtime area search-and-rescue and work-for-hire helicopter pilot Doug Sheffer.

Power outage in Carbondale

About the same time Saturday morning, Xcel Energy reported a power outage affecting parts of Carbondale. The incident was not related to the helicopter crash, but was due to animal contact at a transformer, Aguayo said.

The outage was reported at 7:31 a.m. and caused 70 customers to lose power. Service has since been restored, she said.


Re-2 prepares for in-person graduations at Coal Ridge High School next weekend

Coal Ridge High announced Tuesday it will go ahead with two graduation ceremonies at 8:30 a.m. July 18 and 19 in the back parking lot at the school between Silt and New Castle.

“In order to maintain the maximum number of 175 people in Garfield County, we will be having two graduation ceremonies,” Principal Jackie Davis said according to the post. “Each student will be allowed one car with two guests.” 

Graduates will sit in chairs in front of the vehicle while their guests remain inside. 

Staff at Coal Ridge will be reaching out to each graduate in the next few days to confirm the details.

“We had submitted plans to Garfield County Public Health at the end of June for larger graduation ceremonies, in anticipation that Garfield County would get an approval for their variance request,” Director of Communications Theresa Hamilton said. “Garfield County COVID-19 cases have not remained flat, they’ve escalated fairly rapidly recently. That precluded us from going forward. That meant the plans for both schools to hold larger in-person ceremonies have been revised because the circumstances today were not the circumstances we were anticipating.”

Garfield County Public Health is reviewing events like Coal Ridge’s graduation and is in support of the events going forward.

“As these events are re-established and they may be allowed … just because it’s approved doesn’t mean the risk isn’t there. Everybody needs to evaluate their own risk factors and what they are willing to expose themselves to,” Garfield County Public Health Environmental Health Director Josh Williams said. 

Garfield County Public Health is asking people to still do their individual parts to make sure they’re wearing face coverings and staying apart, and not forgetting that social distancing is still important even outside.

“Even though you may go to an event that’s allowed, you still want to take on that personal responsibility of making sure you stay socially distant,” Garfield County Public Health Specialist Carrie Godes said. “There is inherent risks involved. We just want to remind people there are active cases spreading in our community, and this is not the time to let your guard down.”

Davis and Rifle High School Principal John Arledge met with facility staff and Superintendent Heather Grumley this week to flesh out modified plans moving forward. 

Rifle is moving forward with its plans for an in-person ceremony 8:30 a.m. July 25. More details will be announced next week, as Principal Arledge makes contact with graduates.

Hamilton said there is a plan to stream Coal Ridge’s ceremonies online for grandparents and everyone else that normally would have come but will not be able to due to physical distancing restrictions. More details will be released closer to the event.

Even though Garfield County Public health is supportive of these types of events, they are still discouraging parties and large gatherings after these events, which is where they are seeing a lot of the transmissions in the younger population.


Approximately 90 instructional and classified staff from Garfield School District Re-2 are working on options to present school board members at the July 27 regular meeting.

According to a news release, they have met to share research, review feedback from parents, staff and a districtwide survey. The group is narrowing the focus of options as it moves forward with education in the 2020-21 school year. The task forces include instruction, health and safety, and parent engagement. 

“Our greatest hope is to return to in-person instruction with modifications in August; however, we continue to develop a variety of models so that we are able to move fluidly between them should conditions change,” a district statement said. “We know that the rules today are different from yesterday’s rules, and will be different from tomorrow’s rules. We will continue this work in July to work on the specifics.” 

Principals and directors will meet next week to work on the details to the models the task forces have begun. 

The School Board will meet on July 27 to formalize the models that will be used to start the 2020-21 school year. This decision will be made based upon the state and public health guidelines, as well as the recommendations from the Colorado Department of Education and the governor. 


3 people die in crash near Silt on Monday night

Updated 3:45 p.m.

The Garfield County Coroner’s Office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that three males died at the scene of Monday night’s crash near Silt.

Colorado River Fire Rescue and Colorado State Patrol responded to a two-vehicle wreck at approximately 9:51 p.m. Monday near mile marker 100 on Highway 6.

“We had three calls within 8 minutes, and one of them was a multiple fatal accident at Highway 6 and Davis Point,” CRFR Chief Randy Callahan said. “Both cars were on fire when we arrived.”

Coroner’s Office investigators responded and upon arrival learned that two pickup trucks were involved in a head-on collision that resulted in a fire.

“The impact from the crash and the subsequent fire has limited the Coroner’s Office investigators from determining a positive identification on all three males,” according to the release. “Circumstantial identification of the decedents is ongoing. The Coroner’s Office is working with families to achieve forensic identification.”

CSP are investigating the accident, which involved a 2014 Dodge pickup and 1990 Ford pickup. Two occupants of the Ford and one in the Dodge died.

Autopsies are scheduled for Wednesday with the Coroner’s Office contract pathologist. The Coroner’s Office will release findings regarding cause and manner of death and decedent identification when that information becomes available.  The Coroner’s Office will only release the names of the deceased to the public once forensic identification is determined, which could take days or weeks. 

The Colorado State Patrol, Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado River Fire Rescue, Silt Police Department, Rifle Police Department, and Colorado Department of Transportation assisted the Garfield County Coroner’s Office. The Coroner’s Office is grateful for the teamwork provided by these agencies during this difficult multiagency response. 


CRFR: A quiet Fourth of July weekend in GarCO

With the ban on fireworks and the safer at home phase of reopening remaining in place over the Fourth of July weekend, some first responders were less busy than in recent years.

“July fourth was actually slower than normal, and Sunday and Monday were both pretty busy,” CRFR Chief Randy Callahan said. “We would like to thank those who followed fire restrictions and no fireworks, it made a big difference for us.”

But CRFR had a steady Sunday as crews responded to a river rescue in West Rifle near the Colorado River shortly before noon. The incident involved three individuals in a kayak that capsized. 

“Upon arrival we found two of them out of the river, they were able to self-rescue. We had a third person on an island that we assisted to shore,” Callahan said.

Crews were on the scene for a little over and hour, no injuries were reported.

A little before 3 p.m. Sunday, CRFR responded to 5450 County Road 233 and Silt Mesa Road vicinity for a structure fire. 

Callahan said the fire is under investigation; “It was an outside fire that extended to shed and a garage, and at one point threatened a residential structure.”

CRFR officials determined the fire started in a stack of pallets near a storage shed and then extended to the storage shed near a garage. 

“We kept it confined to a shed and a garage,” Callahan said. “There was extensive damage to the shed, with extension into the garage.”

A crew of 14 firefighters including mutual aid from Glenwood Springs Fire Department was on scene for 3 hours as they subdued the fire, mopped up the scene. CRFR monitored the scene throughout the night, and no injuries were reported. 

Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, and Garfield County Road and Bridge also assisted on the call.

Walt Stowe with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office said the weekend was relatively quiet for a holiday weekend, with a few assists to CRFR.


An outlet through art

Like most days when Rifle Police Officer Jose Valadez is on the job, you can find him cruising the neighborhoods of Rifle in his patrol vehicle checking in on the community he considers part of his family. 

“Just being there to listen to people who need someone to listen to them,” Valadez said. “Sometimes that’s all I think it takes, they need somebody to talk to. Services to others is the rent we pay on this earth.” 

Valadez, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, has adopted the city as his hometown and has watched the small town grow and become the little city it is today.

Born in Juarez, Mexico, Valadez moved with his family to Colorado when he was 11. The family made stops in Brighton and Glenwood Springs before settling in Rifle where he has lived for more than three decades.

When he is not upholding the law and serving the people he is sworn to protect, he can be found pursuing a rekindled passion for art.

Throughout high school Valadez studied art, and even for a little over a year in college. In his own words he says life happened and he chose a different calling, to serve and protect, leading Valadez to earn his POST certification from CMC. 

Rifle Police Officer Jose Valadez drives towards I-70 as he transports a suspect arrested on a warrant to Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs. When Officer Valadez isn’t wearing his law enforcement uniform he finds outlets in his art and music.

Valadez started as a reserve officer for the Silt Police Department, before being hired on at the department in 2000. He served Silt for five years before accepting a job with the Rifle Police Department in 2005.

A little over three years ago Officer Valadez began picking up his art again, and it has taken off from there.

He said it began with the department’s public information officer, Robin Steffen, asking for a little help making a banner for an event. She had heard about his artistic talent as he started spray paint art. Now Valadez spends his spare time painting watercolors, dabbling in acrylic paint, and drawing and painting on rocks.

Valadez can’t remember when he started painting designs on rocks, but according to his records he has painted nearly 300 rocks. Each rock Valadez creates he marks with his radio call sign, #421, because he said his name is just too long to sign on the front of the rocks. Typically he labels the back with Rifle ROCKS Group/post/keep or re-hide.

Officer Valadez uses several mediums for his art including watercolors, graphite pencils, acrylic paints and tattoo ink.

A few people have asked for and even tried to pay him for them. He usually just asks for enough money to cover his supplies. Most of the rock artwork he has created he has hidden in hopes people will find them when they are out enjoying the Colorado outdoors.

Valadez said he hides them throughout the Western Slope, the Denver area, and even as far away as Las Vegas.

“I’ve given out a lot of rocks, it’s been awesome,” Valadez said. “I have a list, when people ask me to paint something for them — a rock, a water color, or a canvas.”

Valadez admits he would never make a good commission as an artist; he paints what he feels in the moment, so some of his customers might have to wait until he can get to their design.

Last year around this time Valadez was feeling patriotic and painted several rocks and hid them for the Fourth of July weekend in Rifle.

He planned to do it again this year, and when he showed Kathy Pototsky, public information officer with the city of Rifle, three rocks he had finished, she asked him to join forces for a planned city-sponsored scavenger hunt.

Officer Valadez has been in law enforcement for 20 years, starting in Silt, before moving to Rifle in 2005.

“You can see some of his artwork around the building. In fact when he first started doing those, I fell in love with it and commissioned him to do one,” Pototsky said. “He can do it all. He did a watercolor that is just absolutely unbelievable.”

Valadez painted 11 patriotic rocks, and the city hid them in businesses around the city.  Participants in the hunt have to find them and take a picture with the rocks in the business; and submit the picture to poppascotthop@yahoo.com for a chance to win one of the original designs by Valadez.

Valadez said that most of the times when people find his rocks they end up keeping them. Sometimes they might share a photo on social media, but usually he never sees them again. With the scavenger hunt he believes hundreds of people will get to see his rocks.

“Rock painting has been the most rewarding for me, because I give those away, and hopefully bring a smile to someone’s face,” Valadez said. “It makes me happy to make someone’s day.”


As the clock nears midnight Officer Valadez cooks his lunch during a break after a busy mid-week shift last week in Rifle.

Around the Corner: Local swimming hole

Earlier this week I was able to take a few laps at the new Rifle Metro Pool. After months of covering the project, it was quite refreshing to enjoy the facility and not have to worry about working.

The nice cool water, the splashing of children, the diving board and the water slide brought a lifetime of memories flooding back, as I remembered the city pool and swimming holes I used to frequent in my youth.

Growing up, we lived so far out in the country it was a rarity to get to go to the city pool as a child. When we did go, boy, did we have fun.

One thing I remember about the pool in my hometown is it was always packed. The screams of joy and exuberance filled the air as children scurried around the pool splashing one another.

For many the pool is like it is depicted in many Hollywood movies — it’s where you met your friends, where you had your first crush. For me it was where I learned to be fearless.

I still remember my first few swimming lessons, the fear of diving off the diving board and the mad rush to swim toward safety. Once I learned how to swim there was nothing stopping me from trying or recreating what my brothers or the bigger kids were doing.

I was a little bit of a daredevil at times.

Because we lived so far from town, sometimes we didn’t have someone to give us a ride to the pool. Usually me, my brothers and our friends who lived close by would improvise and find the closest irrigation canal or reservoir and jump in. Wherever there was water we would try to swim in it.

On occasion we would get to the city pool or one of the hot springs pools near my hometown. 

I was lucky and made it through my youth and my early adult years fairly unscathed, a few battle wounds and scars over the years.

My luck ran out not too long after I turned 30. My nieces and nephew wanted me to do something fun off the slide during a family reunion. I chose to slide headfirst and go as fast as possible, little did I know it was way too shallow below the slide. 

After hitting the bottom of the pool I slowly surfaced, and I guess it was a site to see. All I remember are a few screams and a lot of stunned faces, before I was told to get out of the pool in a hurry. That is when the blood began running down my face and began pooling in the water in front of me.

After a quick trip to the hospital, and the most stitches and X-rays I’ve ever had, my days as a swimming pool daredevil were over. Now I’ll just enjoy watching the younger generation do flips off the diving board as I soak up the sun.


Ryan Fideldy new principal at Elk Creek Elementary

Last week the Garfield School District Re-2 School Board approved Ryan Fideldy as the next leader at Elk Creek Elementary effective July 1.

Fideldy has been with the district since 2006, holding teaching positions at Roy Moore Elementary and Cactus Valley Elementary before transitioning to an academic coach at Graham Mesa Elementary School in 2012. 

Fideldy replaces Lisa Pierce, who resigned earlier this year to assume the assistant superintendent role at Garfield Re-2.

“Having the opportunity to lead in Garfield Re-2 is something I’ve aspired to do. To follow a close friend and mentor of mine in Lisa Pierce at Elk Creek Elementary is a great honor,” Fideldy said according to a news release.  

The two worked together at Roy Moore Elementary/Cactus Valley Elementary for six-years prior to taking other positions. 

“A lot of my enthusiasm for instruction and education was cultivated by Lisa. I look up to her in a lot of ways,” he said.

Fideldy said that he is excited to begin forming relationships with the Elk Creek Elementary students, staff and community and is ready to take on the challenges of helping determine what the coming year, in the era of COVID-19, will look like.

“I really want to get to know everyone — every single student and every staff member. As an administrator, the number of people you get to know and care for grows and you can see the ripple effect, in a positive way, throughout the school,” he said. “I enjoy problem-solving to put people in their best possible position to succeed. I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the New Castle and ECE communities.”

Lightning Strikes ignite two fires in western Garfield County

A weekend thunderstorm is responsible for two small fires burning in rural western Garfield County near the Utah border. Both fires are located north of Interstate 70, one on private land and the other on BLM land.

Two lightning strikes were responsible for igniting the Jim Canyon 2 and Jim Canyon 3 fires which are within a mile of each other.

Walt Stowe with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office said smoke jumpers and hot shot crews were called in to help contain the fire and keep it from spreading Sunday evening.

As of Monday afternoon crews have 100% containment on the 3-acre Jim Canyon 3 fire. Crews continue to work on the 7-acre Jim Canyon 2 fire, and have it at around 50% contained.

Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit is managing the fires, with one hotshot crew and two smokejumpers currently battling the fire as high winds continue to plague the Western Slope.

A light haze over the Colorado River and Roaring Fork Valleys began Sunday as several fires in the region including East Canyon, Goose Creek, and Sand Creek fires burning in southwestern Colorado.

Weather patterns continue to bring smoke from a half dozen large fires burning in Arizona currently.

Stage 1 fire restrictions are currently in effect for Garfield County, and were implemented based on dry conditions, weather outlook, human risk factors, and firefighting resources available.