“What Fire Does Not Destroy, It Hardens.”
“How’s the real estate market out there where you are?” I’ve been asked a dozen times since July. “The market is on fire!” I’d exclaim enthusiastically, and then promptly make a facetious remark about my unintended pun. The grave truth is that while the real estate market is hot, hot, hot; unfortunately, so are our hillsides, canyons, and forests.
While California, Oregon, and other western states are burning as well, Colorado itself, tragically, has had over 430,000 acres of land burn this summer and fall seasons according to Brian Buma, an ecology professor at the University of Colorado Denver. (New York Times, October 27, 2020.) Fires engulfed Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak, Pine Gulch, East Troublesome and ignited numerous smaller fires in and around these areas due to high wind gusts, occasional lightning strikes, and a precipitation deficiency. There was ample movement within our real estate market after the pandemic-inspired shutdown was lifted, but immediately after businesses were able to re-open their doors, many businesses once again had to shut down. Every time we felt we were liberated with movement again, we were repeatedly paralyzed by another force of restrictiveness.
Visitors couldn’t travel from outside of the area to get to the Roaring Fork Valley, or they were having trouble fleeing their hometowns in other western states. Interstate 70 and Independence Pass, two of the most crucial means of ingress and egress of the Roaring Fork Valley, had closed. Animals and livestock were helpless in their own habitats. Tourists driving commuter rentals were trapped while trying to flee over craggy, 4×4-only mountain roads, creating chaos for rescue personnel. Trails and national forests were closed to the public for hiking and biking. The rivers were void of the rafting and fly-fishing guided tours. Personally, I was trying to knock off ten pandemic pounds playing tennis in El Jebel, 25 miles from the Grizzly Creek Canyon in Glenwood, and numerous times, practice and even matches had to be cancelled because the air quality was so poor. The stream of smoke makes one’s eyes and throats burn, resulting in headaches, cold-like symptoms, and feeling generally unwell. Visually, the looming billows of smoke in the distance were terrifying. It was like a monstrous fog creeping over the mountaintops comin’ to getcha!
Between the Covid-19 crisis, a hostile and volatile election year, and now, the wilderness ravaged with flames, to which everyone fled for safety and recreation, our population was once again feeling trapped and anxious for entirely different reasons.
There was, however, a very human light of hope among all the chaos among native Coloradoans and visitors who fancied a one or two week stay in the Rocky Mountain sun and ended up extending for a month or several months to avoid returning to the more high-risk cities or states. This twinkling glow brought a slow dousing effect to our edgy dispositions.
The State of Colorado, combined with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and other federal, state, and local agency partners found a leader. A leader who had a neighborly, pragmatic, and dry delivery as a reporter. A morning coffee “friend,” and a family man, who appeared before us on television, YouTube, and Facebook every day with live updates on the Grizzly Creek Fire, which was too close for comfort in the Roaring Fork Valley. A “decorated” fireman, who has been in the front lines among the burning trees, amidst the smoke in helicopters and planes, dumping water and retardant, and lapped by wicked flames. He’s a fire whisperer, a nature embracer, and a humble, hard-working man who has reinvented himself, on a mission to share his knowledge and passion with the public. He was Jeremiah Johnson combating Grizzly Creek Canyon! His genuine interest is in the safety and preservation of our wildlife and communities. That guiding light is Operations Section Chief, Jeff Surber; AKA the “Sam Elliot of the Grizzly Creek Fire.”
We had the privilege and pleasure to interview Jeff recently via Zoom. He had recently returned from a Chukar partridge hunting expedition, after a brief hiatus from not only the Grizzly Creek Fire here in Colorado, but the Sierra Range fires of Northern California not far from his home town of Carson City, NV. We reached out to Jeff, because he became a household name over the past several months, diligently reporting daily to communities including, but not limited to, Glenwood Springs, No Name, Gypsum, Carbondale, the Roaring Fork Valley, and beyond – mostly via social media coverage on the status of fire spreading, containment, evacuations, and efforts to protect our homes and national forest from further decimation. Interestingly enough, Jeff’s passion for property and public service seems to be a consistent theme in his dual careers: working as a land appraiser for over 30 years, while seasonally fighting fire when required, and responding to other federal emergencies for over 40 years. Evidently, his understanding of the value of land is both mathematical and esthetic. Even though he is officially retired, he continues to contribute his knowledge and expertise in the Operations Section Chief role with his team.
COVID quarantine brought a lot more attention to the fire reporting on Facebook, as people were housebound and concerned about where to go in the event of an evacuation. According to Jeff, people were starved for information on the event that was taking place so close by, and social media provided another up-to-the-minute coverage that people were glued to as our traditionally Colorado robin’s egg blue skies were smudged with a smoky haze for hundreds of miles for months. Even when the winds shifted and the skies appeared to be clear, the air quality was deceptively still quite poor and could create a panic whenever one experienced a headache, watery eyes, or a dry persistent cough, as the symptoms were all too reminiscent of the beginning symptoms of Covid-19.
In addition to quelling the fires of the White River National Forest, Jeff also had to quell rumors before they reached the media; not only was he fighting fires in nature, but he was also fighting a new type of fire that spreads rampantly on social media before actual facts are confirmed. He had to text, email, and consistently report from the field (in the air) and back on the ground with maps and cameras to make sure the public understood the exact tracking of the fires and the progress of their containment and extinguishment before online rumors spread from sometimes uninformed or panic-stricken residents. In “short,” Jeff was so appreciated during these terrifying times that his fan club customized a Jeff Surber bobblehead in his honor. Thanks, Jeff for your soothing voice of reason and good humor.
Tenley Steinke, our Engel & Völkers Marketing Director and photographer, followed Jeff daily as she lives just a few miles from the Grizzly Creek Canyon in Glenwood. Every morning and evening before and after work she ventured out to document on her own time, the ominous imagery that was engulfing her. Living so close to one of the many fires Colorado was fighting, she listened to Jeff religiously, like thousands of other followers on social media to keep up with evacuations, procedures, and protocol. She learned about fire lines and the varying ways different trees burn; for example, the firs tend to burn the fastest as they have low hanging branches like the skirt of Christmas trees, and once a fire starts beneath them, according to Surber, it creates a ladder fuel which is highly flammable and climbs quickly, killing the tree. Unlike Ponderosa Pine, for example, which has higher branches and are self-pruning, the fire may die-off on the bark as it starts to climb before reaching any branches and needles.
This sparked a question for Tenley, as there is some controversy over whether or not to let mother nature self-rejuvenate and restore herself, or to re-plant to help her along. Jeff Surber suggests that it makes sense to replant at times, especially along trails or in housing areas, but it could take decades or even centuries for timber to grow back organically. Even were humankind not to refurbish plant or tree-life manually, any contribution to our forest preservation organizations would help.
A Minnesota native, Tenley’s new experience of the rugged Rocky Mountain’s catastrophe ignited an idea for her. “I wanted to set up something for the community: something different. While I love the idea of Lift Up or a coat drive, I wanted to implement something that caught our community’s attention in a completely different way,” said Tenley.
Halloween was approaching and few were feeling particularly festive. A new Pitkin County ordinance reinforced social gatherings no greater than five people and two households, and East Troublesome and Grand Lake evacuations started taking place after the fires grew six times in size, devastating over 125,000 acres just west of Denver. The Apocalyptic vibe started to grow like wildfire, and Tenley thought, what a great opportunity to try to lift everyone’s spirits and back it with a cause for Colorado as well! Why not incorporate pumpkin picking with planting trees? While we pluck from the earth, take the proceeds by planting back!
Tenley recruited our Carbondale, Aspen and Basalt Engel & Völkers teams of marketing experts, admin, and even advisors to collectively hand-pick as many of the most symmetrical and healthy, well-rounded pumpkins from nearly every City Market in Aspen, El Jebel, Carbondale, and New Castle, and then transported them by everyone’s own personal vehicles to our three different Engel & Völkers locations to re-sell for $5.00 per pumpkin.
Each dollar was then donated to the White River National Forest Restoration Fund, organized by the National Forest Foundation in an effort to plant new trees to replenish our wilderness. Before Halloween, hundreds of pumpkins were sold raising over $2,000, and this was all put together last minute in a matter of a few weeks. The ‘Buy A Pumpkin, Plant 5 Trees’ campaign was such a spontaneous success; we propose to do it again next year and make it even bigger and better!
So much like the regeneration of a forest from a burn, with minerals and seeds lying below the surface of the scorched earth and waiting for their moment to rise to the top and blossom; we need to try to continue to do this as a species. Take the travesty of fire, politics, illness, floods, and unemployment; put the perpetual anxiety into better use of energy and try to find cause to get in the spirit of things. Buy that pumpkin, even if there’s no trick or treating. Put up those holiday lights, even if you’re spending the holidays apart from family; put them up in July! Give back to the forests that have given us so much pleasure, especially during the Pandemic shut-down when we were getting soft, depressed, and cabin fever.
At least we live in a region where there usually is so much open space to enjoy, especially when we feel like we’re in captivity otherwise. The recent, weighty snowfall blanketed our fiery and agitated landscape. Perhaps these plagues of 2020 will organically rekindle or regenerate a human condition as well; where there are vital seeds of fertility and newness below the burned-out superficial surface of privileges we’ve endured for centuries as a culture and as a country. Perhaps this will humble us as it does Mother Nature, and like the Phoenix, we shall rise.
Rachel C. Cossman
Broker/Advisor Engel & Völkers Aspen | Roaring Fork
Director of Marketing, Engel & Völkers Aspen | Roaring Fork Valley
Tenley has had experience planting trees. She and I (grandfather) did it together at our NW WI lake retreat, and they are growing rapidly. Her photos are fantastic. She follows in the footprints of her grandmother, who was a WI forest activist. Great job, Tenley!
Thank you for the read, Mr. Steinke; we are glad you enjoyed the blog. Our midwesterners sure seem to love this valley – they fit right in! Love having Tenley as a part of our team! You might be due for a visit!