The place that #coal built and #wildfire burned: Extractive industry laid the infrastructure for the suburban sprawl that fueled #Colorado’s destructive #MarshallFire — @HighCountryNews

Photo of the Dhanoa family by Caleb Santiago Alvarado/High Country News

Click here to read the article on the High Country News website (Kate Schimel) [February 7, 2022]:

When she first saw the smoke, Gurjeet Dhanoa thought it was a dust storm. She watched it as she pumped gas at a Conoco off the highway between Boulder and Denver, Colorado. But when she got back in the car, a cop car pulled out in front of her. The officer told her to turn around and go back. “Something is very, very wrong here,” she thought.

She turned, drove to a ridge a few minutes away, and, for the first time, saw clearly what would soon be called the Marshall Fire. Pushed by winds so strong she could barely stand upright, the fire cut through the suburb of Superior toward the home where her mother, a recent cancer survivor on oxygen, lived. Dhanoa called her brother, who lived with their parents and cared for their mother, and told them to evacuate now; there was no time to grab anything. They jumped in the car and escaped to Dhanoa’s house, a couple of miles away. From Dhanoa’s perch on the ridge, she watched the smoke plume of the burning houses grow so large it hid the flames.

When Dhanoa got home, the fire had not yet made the TV news. The danger seemed to have faded. “It’s not real,” she remembers thinking. “Your mind keeps trying to joke about this.” Her brother said they should prepare, just in case, so she packed up some photo albums and a chest filled with childhood memorabilia. She called her son and husband, who were on a hunting trip, and asked what they’d save. Arjun, 14, asked for a jersey and his Wayne Gretzky card, and Dhanoa’s husband requested a trophy elk mount and his old stick-shift Bronco. “All those years you’ve had that Bronco, you’ve never taught me how to drive it,” she reminded him. They left it behind.

UNLIKE SO MANY of Colorado’s wildfires, the Marshall Fire began out on the plains. The flames tore through grasslands and shrubs and burned more than 1,000 homes, making it the most destructive in the state’s history. Boulder County, once a coal-mining hub, now faced a destructive fire regime, fueled in part by the carbon that was mined there a century ago.

Boulder and the suburbs surrounding it sit at the divide between the Great Plains and the Rockies. The Flatirons — the steep rock faces west of town — draw the eye, but the low roll of the plains rising up to their base is just as significant. This is the shortgrass prairie, stretching north into Canada, south into Texas and east into Kansas, the Dakotas and Oklahoma. It was once the home and hunting grounds of Arapahoe and Cheyenne communities, before the Sand Creek Massacre and treaty violations drove them into Oklahoma in the 1800s.

The Front Range plains are scruffy, typically sparser than the tall and mixed-grass prairies to the east. From the steep hogbacks of the foothills, they look like a smooth sea of green in the spring and gold in the winter. Before the towns were built, wildfires were infrequent but massive, spreading swiftly through the grass.

Housing developments now dominate the Front Range. In Boulder County, the suburbs were often built on the scaffolds of old coal-mining towns. A map from 1915 shows the Northern Coal Field of Colorado running beneath much of the Marshall Fire burn area: Louisville, once the heart of that coal field, now a quiet suburb where more than 500 homes burned; Old Town Superior, home to people who worked at the Industrial, Enterprise and Monarch mines; and Marshall Mesa, a swath of open space where trail signs remind hikers of the coal seam fires that burned underground and where the Marshall Fire may have started.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the miners repeatedly went on strike, sometimes for years, over pay and working conditions. In an oral history recorded in 1978, Thomas Kerr, a former miner, described how they used explosives underground in the 1930s: “Couldn’t breathe. Dust and smoke. That black powder — awful lot of smoke.” In 1936, an explosion killed eight men working the graveyard shift at the Monarch #2 coal mine. Nearly a century later, in Superior, even Dhanoa and her family knew of that tragedy.

A disaster recovery researcher told me that what we call catastrophes, whether fires, floods or collapsing coal mines, are essentially change, compressed in time. Monarch closed a decade later, and many of the nearby mines followed suit, clearing the way for entirely different settlers.

The prairie makes way for the coal mine. The coal mine becomes a suburb. Most people in Boulder today have jobs in tech or health care or service work. They are often drawn to the area by the promise of the Rockies, dreaming of exploring those high mountains, but they build their lives on the prairie.

Since the 1970s, new housing developments have transformed the shortgrass prairie. Driven by rising prices in Boulder and Denver and the desire to escape the city’s perceived woes, wanting more land or a larger home, people flocked to the suburbs. From an airplane, the houses form an irregular grid that stretches from horizon to horizon.

Firefighting aircraft dropping fire retardant on the Flagstaff fire (2012). By User:Runningonbrains, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60626243

In June 2012, during a hot, dry summer, lightning started a fire that quickly burned right up to the crest of the Flatirons that form Boulder’s back wall. From the windows of my childhood home, I saw the wind blow embers over the ridge, igniting the trees on our side. My father explained that fire was far less likely to burn downhill, but we still packed up to leave. Later, after the fire was under control, I watched the smoke plume from the plains. At least nine other notable fires started that month in Colorado, including two that set new state records for how many homes they destroyed.

Looking back, that fire seems like the start of a new era for my hometown, a time when the decisions of the past — the development of the prairie and our dependence on fossil fuels — finally find their consequences. Back then, I could imagine living with fires like that, finding ways to survive and prepare, to be resilient and tough as we faced the climate crisis. The woods surrounding Boulder continued to burn — in 2018 down Bear Creek and then again in 2020 through the north edge of town. Alongside the floods and waning snows, they came to feel like habitual crises.

In a video made after the Marshall Fire, Dhanoa’s brother Mandip tallied the family’s losses. “You see the trailer and mom’s car? That’s all that’s left. Those stairs going up to the right, that’s where my office was,” he quietly narrates. The view shifts to Dhanoa’s house, miles from the start of the burn. “That’s all that’s left, that little fence. That fence is all that’s left.”

Dhanoa’s home burned to the ground. She rescued that one carful of treasured things and no more. The house where her parents and brother lived was lost, along with all their belongings. Across the street from her parents, a house she once lived in and now rented out burned, too. Her tenants couldn’t get back in time, and they lost their pets and everything in the home.

When I spoke with Dhanoa two weeks after the fire, she was at her restaurant, the Tandoori Grill, as her staff deep-cleaned the kitchen. We talked for nearly two hours and, for the most part, she spoke enthusiastically and with great precision about her life. She told me affectionately of the close, warm community that grew out of the old mining town, between the strip malls and sprawl. “Some of them had no idea that this little small town existed in what they thought was a giant suburb,” she said.

But when she talked about her restaurant, she sounded tired. I ate there often when I was growing up; I remember the neat silver trays of the buffet and the crisp white tablecloths next to windows that looked out on a quiet south Boulder mall. When Dhanoa looks around now, though, she sees the evidence of what they survived: the booths they shoved together to sleep on, and the clothes strewn about from when they briefly lived there after evacuating.

“It’s a disaster in the restaurant. I have no ability to deal with it,” she told me. Everything that was stored at the house, from her checkbooks to her menu templates, burned. She can no longer find the answers to even the routine questions her staff has.

It had already been a hard year. Dhanoa, her husband, Paul, and the staff worked long hours to stay afloat during the pandemic. Then her mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and with cancer, now in remission. The fire scattered her once tight-knit neighborhood to the winds, and she doesn’t know if the people will return.

“People keep reaching out and trying to help. They don’t know how to help, and they keep asking. I don’t know what to ask for,” she said. “They feel guilty they can’t help. Because I see they feel guilty, I feel guilty. ”

The day after the fire, the smoke blew away. Snow finally fell. It arrived too late to stop the flames from sweeping through town, but it laid a quiet blanket over the wreckage. A few weeks after that, investigators announced they had narrowed down the fire’s suspected causes. One possibility: an underground fire still burning away in one of the region’s abandoned coal mines.

Annual #Water & Tribes Initiative Basin-wide Gathering: 27th Annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium: The #ColoradoRiver Compact: Navigating the Future March 17-18, 2022 — The University of #Utah #COriver #aridification

Click the image for all the inside skinny.

Click here for all the inside skinny.

Will a $40 million trust save the #GreatSaltLake? Lawmakers hope so — The Deseret News

Satellite photo of the Great Salt Lake from August 2018 after years of drought, reaching near-record lows. The difference in colors between the northern and southern portions of the lake is the result of a railroad causeway. The image was acquired by the MSI sensor on the Sentinel-2B satellite. By Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA – https://scihub.copernicus.eu/dhus/#/home, CC BY-SA 3.0 igo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77990895

Click the link to read the article on The Deseret News website (Amy Joi O’Donoghue). Here’s an excerpt:

A committee of Utah lawmakers on Friday unanimously approved a measure that would infuse $40 million worth of solutions into helping the ailing Great Salt Lake.

HB410, sponsored by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, facilitates a process that ultimately awards the money to an eligible conservation organization tasked with improving flows to the lake, boosting the health of its watershed and raising money through public and private partnerships. Wilson’s district covers half of the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island…

Under the measure, eligible applicants would be required to have knowledge and experience of the Great Salt Lake and its watershed and wetlands, experience with Utah water laws and a history and ability to attract funding for land and water conservation projects.

Wilson’s bill also emphasizes a need for upstream conservation work to improve the health of the lake.

The successful applicant would establish the trust as a private nonprofit organization or as an agreement between two or more conservation organizations. Applicants have to apply within 60 days of the law taking effect, and by 90 days, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, in coordination with the Utah Division of Water Quality will rank them and make a selection.

The Pagosa Areas Water & Sanitation District board approves resolution for #TABOR ballot measure — The #PagosaSprings Sun

The springs for which Pagosa Springs was named, photographed in 1874. By Timothy H. O. Sullivan – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17428006

Click the link to read the article on The Pagosa Springs Sun website (Clayton Chaney). Here’s an excerpt:

During its regular meeting on Feb. 10, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve Resolution 2022-03, which authorizes the submittal of a ballot issue in regard to the district’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights ( TABOR) restrictions. District voters will be able to vote on the ballot issue during this year’s special district election slated for May 3.

PAWSD district voters approved a ballot issue on May 3, 2016, sub- jecting the district to TABOR laws…

PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey explained in a previous interview that the TABOR ballot resolution, if approved by voters, will allow the district to receive an unrestricted amount of grant funding.

Virtual event: The #ColoradoRiver: Where do we go from here? March 16, 2022 — Nature Conservancy #COriver #aridifcation

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to view the event on The Nature Conservancy website.

Due to low levels of water, the federal government has declared a Tier 1 water shortage in the Colorado River for the first time ever. Now in effect, this shortage declaration impacts municipalities, agriculture, tribes, and many other stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin.

What does this mean for Colorado and surrounding states? What are The Nature Conservancy and its partners doing to address this issue?

Join us to learn how the Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability, and what you can do to help. Speakers include:

  • Taylor Hawes – Director, Colorado River Program, The Nature Conservancy
  • Aaron Derwingson – Water Projects Director, Colorado River Program, The Nature Conservancy
  • Carlos Fernández – State Director, Colorado Chapter, The Nature Conservancy
  • Register today to secure your spot!