Colo: Vallecito residents lash out at feds and environmentalists after fire devastation

July 19, 2002

By Jim Greenhill
Herald Staff Writer

VALLECITO, Colorado – The firestorm is long gone, but – as rain fell outside – a storm of anger peaked at a Vallecito Chamber of Commerce meeting with federal and state officials Thursday night.

Business people and residents railed – sometimes with raised voices and always with passion – against a federal government they said isn’t helping them recover, against environmentalists they blamed for the density of fuels in the forest and against forest officials.

One resident who refused to evacuate when the area was cleared during the Missionary Ridge Fire charged that the fire devastation was worse than it needed to be because firefighters deliberately set fires and that a fire manager told him they would not attempt to douse the blaze around the reservoir.

U.S. Forest Service spokespeople could not be reached for comment on the charges late Thursday. Firefighters do sometimes intentionally set fires to back burn, destroying fuels ahead of the main blaze, but it was not clear late Thursday that they used the technique in the Vallecito area.

"The supervision held (frontline firefighters) back," said Norman Rudd, a resident on Middle Mountain Road. "They would not put these fires out. They had no intention to. They were going to let it burn ‘the underbrush.’"

Meanwhile, LuAnn Kraemer, local representative for U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R.-Colo., told the audience of 47 people gathered at the pavilion at the Blue Spruce RV Park and Camp Ground at the north end of County Road 500 that the congressman’s staff is taking security precautions because they fear violence from environmental extremists.

"We’re worried that they’re going to attack the staff," Kraemer said. She said the fear has arisen because McInnis has been trying to highlight constraints put on forestry management by environmentalists.

"Somebody has got to stand up to these folks," Kraemer said, to cheering from the audience.

Vallecito residents, hardest hit by the Missionary Ridge Fire, have said they want to be positive and not dwell on the fire. Some, like Bob Davis and Bob Croll, owners of adjacent businesses at the north end of the lake, have taken matters into their own hands and arranged for seeding on their properties.

Others have organized a community potluck planned for Saturday in honor of firefighters and others who helped fight the fire. David McGinnis, a longtime resident, has spent $4,000 having Missionary Ridge Fire patches made to send to firefighters along with a letter of thanks and a brochure in hopes they’ll remember the area fondly and return to vacation.

Business people also are cooperating to advertise the area and to lobby local, state and federal officials for help.

But they say they can only help themselves up to a point and that they desperately need help.

Some in the room complained that federal aid appears to be an illusion. They told stories of being passed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Small Business Administration to the Internal Revenue Service to other agencies, but they received no help.

"Everyone seems concerned about Durango, but what about Vallecito?" asked Doug Allen, who owns Eagle’s Nest Cabins and Homes. "Nowhere has it had a more serious impact than Vallecito. We lose the summer and we lose an entire year’s income."

Ed McMillan, president of the Bank of Durango, said Vallecito is important to La Plata County’s economy.

"This Vallecito Lake area produces enormous tax revenue for La Plata County every summer, and from time to time it appears as though these people are overlooked."

On June 1 – nine days before the fire – Allen said 90 percent of his cabins were occupied for the season.

"They have almost all canceled," he said. "We’re not really getting any federal government help here. Remember when Chrsyler got bailed out? We’re looking for something for the little guy."

When Allen told of a friend whose insurance was canceled immediately after he made a claim for fire damage, he drew a promise from state Rep. Mark Larson, R-Cortez, to report such episodes to the state insurance commission for investigation and to introduce legislation to close loopholes.

Businesses large and small at Vallecito are experiencing a harsh year.

Jim Custer owns Wit’s End Guest Ranch and Resort. Families pay $10,000 to $12,000 for a week at the upscale, four-star rated ranch, complete with an Orvis flyfishing lodge, but Custer said the scale of his business just makes the losses he faces proportionally bigger.

He said he lost $300,000 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he was denied a business-interruption insurance claim when customers couldn’t fly in because planes were grounded on the basis that they could have driven.

He said the fire has cost him an additional $400,000 in business.

"Between this year, 2003 and 2004, Wit’s End revenue will be down $2.9 million," he said. "I don’t know whether we’ll survive. I hope we will.

"We had 9-11, then we had the drought and we wound up with no lake this year, which was a problem without the fire."

The latest blow is steel gates that have appeared at both ends of the road around the east side of the reservoir, residents said.

"When you get the mudslide, don’t have a heart attack," Vallecito business owner Croll said. "You’re isolated. You’ve got one way out of the valley."

If the west road were blocked, residents would be trapped.

Karla Graham, who bought Rocky Mountain Outfitters in November, said the entire area of forest she is permitted to use has been closed by the fire, and forest closures prevent her from accessing the wilderness.

"How do I generate income?" she asked. "We’ve had to cancel all the rest of our summer. I’ve got 48 livestock sitting around eating to the tune of $1,600 a month."

Graham gestured to the representatives of U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., McInnis, state Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, FEMA, the SBA and other politicians and agencies who had come to listen.

"Does anybody have any answers for any of us?" she demanded.

No one jumped to be the first to reply.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]