No one who had been in the Pine Gulch area 18 miles north of Grand Junction was surprised on July 31, when a bolt of lightning set ablaze the tinder dry hills north of the escarpment that guards the Colorado River Valley. No rain, to speak of, and hot, dry winds set the mixed conifer, sage and grass rangeland up as a perfect location for disaster to strike.
By Monday of this week, 133 square miles of valuable range land and wildlife habitat were burned. Ranchers moved their cows to safe havens, some back to ranch headquarters and some to temporary pastures offered by friends and neighbors from Ridgway to Grand Junction. Some stock and wildlife never made it out of the fire zone. No one really knows how many yet.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 10, a hot exhaust, tossed cigarette, or maybe the sun shining through a discarded bottle ignited a blaze right on Interstate 70 in the Glenwood Canyon. The ignition point was only a mile from tourist-packed Glenwood Springs.
The conditions were identical to the Pine Gulch scene. The fire moved faster than men could run and eventually managed to jump the highway and the river before heading south, while the northern perimeter ran north just as quickly.
By this morning, the burn area had surpassed 29,733 acres. Hardworking crews managed to keep the fire out of Glenwood Springs proper.
As in the Pine Gulch conflagration, cattle growers were caught with their entire livestock investment at risk.
Tom and Ginny Harrington run Crystal River Ranch out of Carbondale. The ranch is owned by Sue Rodgers. They had more than 600 cow/calf pairs and almost as many steers on the range in the path of the new Grizzly Creek burn, named for the creek that drains down from the White River National Forest and joins the Colorado River at Glenwood. Tom, originally from Ridgway, and Ginny, from Montrose, knew exactly what to do.
The question was, was there time, the fire was moving fast. Within hours of the report, Tom was on the ground in the allotment south of Glenwood Springs, opening gates and dropping fences so that the cattle could freely move away from the fire.
Ginny tells the story: “Tom checked on the cows Tuesday with the ATV. They were moving. We spent all day Wednesday and Thursday gathering. We trailed them down the road. Out of 600 pairs, only seven pairs were missing, but the gates are open and the mamas know the way to the shipping corrals.“
Thursday was a long day. After finishing the drive, the cows were loaded into semis. It took 20 trailer trips to get all the animals to the Crystal River outfit headquarters.
But the job wasn’t done.
On Friday, everybody — ranch crew, neighbors and family — went back for the yearlings that had waited around the gates. The riders trailed them to the chutes and they were hauled to Bob Urquart in Olathe. Bob had 162 steers on the Crystal River outfit for the summer. Ginny says the fire was close enough to see the flames before they finished.
Even though there may be some animals still in harm’s way, there is a good chance that they could still be found by firefighters or other ranchers. For now, however, the Harringtons are not allowed back in the area.
The Harringtons are relieved to not have lost anymore stock then they may have. Ginny told me of other friends and neighbors, like Jeff and Thad Neislink, who had lost a significant number.
Everybody gathered at the headquarters Thursday night, covered in dust and ashes, where Ginny and Cody Griebel (foreman Travis Griebel’s wife) cooked dinner.
Obviously, the Harringtons were not the only folks who have spent several long, hard days moving frightened livestock away from fires. My best wishes go out to all the cowboys and cowgirls who stepped up and saddled up and got the job done.
Gardner’s in a bare-knuckle bash
United States Sen. Cory Gardner, a farmer from Yuma, Colo., gave a good old-fashioned stump speech last week to the special meeting of the Montrose Republican Women. Gardner was on the Western Slope in a whistle stop tour that also included a visit to the Montrose Forest Products headquarters. The luncheon meeting at the Elks Lodge put the senator, who is in a head-to-head battle with former Gov. John Hickenlooper, in front of his strongest constituency, and he came out swinging.
“We can’t afford to lose the Senate majority,” said Gardner to the audience of 150, mostly business and agriculture producers. Gardner said that agriculture has a lot to lose, because people like Hickenlooper, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest of the Democrats, have no regard for agriculture or the multiple use of public lands.
“They would just as soon see ag off public lands altogether,” Gardner told the room.
Public lands are a biggie for the senator from a town that isn’t as big as some condo complexes in D.C. He was one of the drivers in the move to bring the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out of Washington and here to Grand Junction. In July, he was able to shepherd a bipartisan movement to pass his Great American Outdoors Act that fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at a level of $900 million every year and addresses the approximately $20 billion maintenance backlog on federal public lands.
The senator said our water, our lands and our livelihoods are at stake. Gardner admitted to the group that he was in a serious fight. The Real Clear Politics polls, one of the more reliable number crunchers, say the race is a dead heat.