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The Kansas town of Greensburg built back better after devastated by a tornado. Colorado’s Grand County can do better after the East Troublesome fire.

by Andrew Miller

We live in a time of changed climate, as was evidenced by the East Troublesome firestorm (See Big Pivots, Nov. 2) that all but engulfed the Three Lakes region of Colorado on Oct. 21.

Many have told me stories about that evening, all with common threads. The nightmarish roar coming from the west sounding like an oncoming freight train. Dark skies illuminating oddly orange colored trees. Lake Granby’s turbid surface reflecting the fiery colors of the oncoming fire storm. Walls of flame chasing evacuees down county roads toward U.S. 34 and the route south to safety. Hurricane force winds knocking people down and moving cars off track. An atmosphere which appeared to be on fire.

Smoke fueled clouds above the fire Wednesday evening towered like thunderheads—high enough to have lenticular cloud caps which normally occur at altitudes of 40,000 feet.

A similar fire storm started during the Pine Gulch fire north of Grand Junction this summer. This type of event is all too common in California. The East Troublesome firestorm may be the first recorded at our high altitude.

The warmer climate means our forests will continue to be at risk for fires like this. Only weather conditions, luck, and efforts from heroic firefighters kept the fire from wrapping south of Lake Granby over Winter Park Highlands and into the Fraser Valley.

This is from the Nov. 20, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, which chronicles the great energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Sign up for copies at BigPivots.com.

As we rebuild, we also need to rethink. The small town of Greensburg, Kan., may offer us some guidance.

Several years ago, I visited this western Kansas farm community. Greensburg was all but wiped off the map by an EF5 tornado in 2007. Considering 95% of the town literally disappeared in the 250 mph maelstrom, mercifully just 11 lives were lost. Our local blessing—largely because of the heroism of our first responders—was the loss of only two local citizens.

Greensburg was rebuilt with tornado “proof” construction, supplied by almost entirely by green energy.

Perhaps we can consider rebuilding in the Three Lakes in a similar resilient fashion.

A scene from along the shores of Lake Granby soon after the East Troublesome fire. Photo/Allen Best

A good first step would be for the Grand County Commissioners and the Grand Lake Town Trustees to consider ordinances making it so homeowner associations cannot disallow stucco and steel siding construction techniques.  These two building materials provide a cost-effective method to resist fires (and woodpeckers).

All local governments, including the town board on which I serve in Fraser, should do the same. We could also model Winter Park’s ongoing, partially town funded efforts to remove dead trees from our communities. We need to seriously examine how close trees and shrubs are to existing structures.

Admittedly, in many cases, the fire storm which engulfed the Three Lakes burned through most any construction system known to exist short of a concrete bunker.

Once again, we confront a dilemma which has obvious answers. How do we fix a problem before it creates disaster and tragedy? Do we invest in fire resistant exterior finishes for our homes? Do we invest in creating healthy forests and well-watered meadows before a firestorm engulfs us again?

Are we smart enough rectify the poor decisions of the past?

I believe we are. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Andrew Miller builds houses in the Icebox of the Nation, otherwise known as Fraser, where he is also a town trustee.

Allen Best
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