Fire and flood bring challenges, opportunities

In 2014, Kathi and Jack Thomas found their dream home in the Wet Mountains east of Westcliffe. But just two short years later, that dream went up in smoke in the Junkins Fire, an 18,000-acre conflagration that erupted in the early morning hours pushed by hurricane-force winds.

The fire destroyed the Thomases’ home and burned about 200 acres, much of it under a conservation easement with San Isabel Land Protection Trust. But they didn’t give up on their dream, and they didn’t give up on the land.

 “We have such an attachment to the land,” they said, “we were eager to make things right again.”

And San Isabel’s stewardship director, Kate Spinelli, was ready to help.

“Fire recovery increasingly has become a part of our stewardship efforts,” Kate said. “We’ve worked to identify and secure resources and partner with agencies and federal, state and local governments. The goal is to reduce flooding; protect homes, roads and water supplies; reduce erosion; restore vegetation; and protect wildlife habitat.”

The Junkins Fire is one of four major fires that have left their marks on our region since 2016 – the Hayden Pass Fire in Fremont County, the Beulah Hill Fire near the town of Beulah and this summer’s spectacular and costly Spring Fire in Huerfano and Costillo counties, the third largest in Colorado history. The Junkins Fire affected six conservation easements held by San Isabel. Another six easements are close to the Spring Fire burn area and are at risk for damage in years to come, especially in the Pass Creek area.

Kate said, “Post-fire flooding flushes the burn areas and is part of the regeneration process. But the flooding can be dangerous for people and property below the burned area. Steep hillsides stripped of trees and other vegetation can’t absorb or catch rainfall. Burned trees fall and are swept down with water, soil, ash and other materials. The debris flows threaten life, homes, roads and water quality downstream.”

        Mile High Youth Corps members install erosion-control structures on the Thomas property.

To help the regrowth process on the Thomases’ property, Kate secured a grant that in late May brought a Mile High Youth Corps crew to work to stabilize the property’s steep slopes, using log erosion barriers made from burned trees. The crew also spread grass seed and planted saplings.

“The crew worked extremely hard, did a tremendous job and were totally respectful to us, each other and the work at hand,” the Thomases said. “Kate arranged the entire itinerary that brought professional folks daily to talk to the youth about training techniques, education, career initiatives. It was an amazingly successful two weeks!”

In July, the Thomases thought they were on the road to recovery. They knew what needed to be done, and they could see progress.

“Then the rain came,” the Thomases recalled. “A lot of rain, at one time, on more than one occasion. The flood destruction was not only to the burned land, but also to the unburned green forest and bottomland meadows down slope. Our emotions were similar to when we saw the result of the fire in 2016 – devastating. Our land was washing away, and so many others were being affected. The only exception was where the Youth Corps worked. Those slopes held up!”

Kate points out that wildfire is essential to forest and watershed health in our fire-adapted part of Colorado.

“It helps maintain the biodiversity of plants, animals and their habitats,” she said. “When fire is suppressed, the health of the forests, creeks and valleys we value suffers. But while the regeneration process unfolds, our neighbors struggle with the fires’ aftermath. They need help and expertise.”

Kate has worked to bring that help to our landowners. She has advocated for fire recovery services and resources for the Hayden Pass Fire. After the Junkins Fire, she invited fire recovery organizations, such as the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, to complete a channel diversion project to protect the home of fourth-generation rancher Bill Donley and his wife, Vicki, on the Billington Ranch. After the Thomas property and adjacent properties were hit by post-fire debris flows, she brought together partners to begin a coordinated approach to managing damage there.

Kate also connected agency and organization staff with landowners dealing with post-fire flooding immediately following the Spring Fire in the Pass Creek area of Huerfano County. San Isabel will continue to help those landowners secure resources and complete projects to maximize fire recovery work on their properties.

And we will continue to work with landowners to improve their forests before a catastrophic fire strikes. This work helps ensure forests are healthier and more resilient to fire, allowing fire to benefit the landscape and not devastate landowners and their communities. 

Fire moves us to ask key questions:

  • What can we learn from the process of fire?
  • How can we mirror and support the restorative processes of the forest while protecting lives and our homes?
  • How can we better prepare for such emergencies and continue to be ready to help our neighbors as the aftermath of the fire continues into the future?
  • What can we do to help? 

We are committed to finding answers to these questions for the sake of our landowners and the community at large.

The Thomases’, too, remain committed to the work ahead.

“We understand Mother Nature will take its course, and we continue to stay positive,” they said. “San Isabel has been with us every step of the way, and we are so thankful to have them as partners. There has been so much good that has surfaced from this tragedy. We are so blessed to have the wonderful people at San Isabel help us along. We couldn’t have gotten through this without them. They are true stewards of the land.”

Janet Smith

Posted in News


We have protected more than 42,000 acres through 134 conservation easements.

Conservation easements guarantee long-term protection – through generations of landowners.