W

Cheating Fire

Story by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

Photographs by

GLORIA DICKIE &

MICHAEL KODAS

 

Video by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

Website by

GLORIA DICKIE

 

            HE name doesn't sound promising. It's certainly no Palm Springs or

            Coral Gables. In place of verdant assurances, the town offers little more than drought and desolation. And yet that didn't stop them from coming—Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, cattle-haulers and tractor trailers rolled through by the hundreds on their way to Kansas' dusty plains. That is, until the construction of I-70 in the late 1960s and early '70s brought the community to a halt.

 

Last Chance, Colo. lived and died with the automobile. Little more than a glorified pit stop in the 1940s and '50s, it earned its name as the last chance to fill up on gas before U.S. 36 ushered travelers across state lines. Now, the eight-person community in Washington County is a gas pump graveyard. Blackened, barbwire fences poke out of thirsty wheat stubble. Abandoned motels, wallpapered with mold, rot at the roadside. Only the defunct Dairy King retains any of its former glory, custard yellow walls melting against the big sky.

 

Life out here relies on two things: Fuel and water. Both are all but gone. Wells dried up and service stations burned. Yet Last Chance cannot escape its roots. Though the four-corner town has little left to offer travelers, automobiles and fuel continue to put Last Chance on the map.

 

On June 25, 2012, sparks from a passing pick-up truck's flat tire ignited the paper-dry grass in a ditch five miles south of Last Chance. In just over a day the fire had burned through 45,000 acres of grass and other fine fuels, incinerating 11 structures, including two occupied homes. By the time it was 100 percent contained, the fire had earned the title of fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado history—despite burning for hours, not weeks. The High Park Fire, which was still burning that June, took 21 days to work its way through just over 87,000 acres in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Colo.

 

Nearby residents blamed the Last Chance fire on sweltering temperatures and high winds, but one crucial element was missing from such pedestrian accusations—cheatgrass.

 

 

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The eight-person community of Last Chance, Colo. no longer has gas stations, restaurants or motels, but the postman still stops here.

The Worst Year?

"

              OU can see by the color where the cheat is.”

 

Ankle-deep in gray grass, Tim D'Amato, weed district manager for Larimer County, reaches down and pulls up a fistful of the dry, brittle brome.

 

It's barely dawn at Fossil Creek Reservoir Open Space in Fort Collins, Colo., 133 miles away from the forgotten plains of Last Chance. Birdcalls and thrumming insects labor to conceal the sound of early morning commuters whizzing down I-25, unaware of the danger in the ditches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unremarkable in appearance, cheatgrass doesn’t leave a lasting impression like hundreds of acres of beetle-killed forest draining a hillside of its vibrancy. But it’s a whole lot worse for fire.

 

Native to Eurasia, cheatgrass, also known as downy brome, has invaded every continent except Antarctica since the 1800s, hitching rides among grain exports and packing materials destined for the New World. By 1900, the grass was reported to have made its way to Washington, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, in due part to the railway system.

 

Although it's classified as a winter annual, the hardy plant can germinate at any time of the year, allowing it to “cheat” native vegetation out of precious water and nutrients.

 

Out at Fossil Creek, D'Amato casts a wary eye to the patchwork of dead grasses covering the field. The invasive plant is often mistaken for harmless Kentucky bluegrass and sixweeks fescue. But D'Amato knows better.

 

"Fourth of July, it's going to be bad," he warns, calloused hands cradling the soft blades under an October sun.

 

It takes less than two inches of moisture for a strong fall flush—monsoonal rains dropped between seven and nine inches on the region in September alone. Now, D’Amato and land managers are bracing for a biblical bloom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim D'Amato, weed district manager for Larimer County, examines dead cheatgrass at Fossil Creek Reservoir Open Space in Fort Collins, Colo. Cheatgrass is a growing problem throughout much of the west, and 2014 has the potential to be the worst year on record for Colorado.

 

With average precipitation, cheatgrass will grow to a height of between 10 and 20 inches; add in a bit more rain than usual and you'll get another four inches out of it.

 

Over winter the grass lies dormant under a blanket of snow, patiently expanding its root system until warmer spring temperatures kick-start a period of rapid growth.

 

Early maturation gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage, but it also means the weed will dry out long before native perennials. In its wake, it can leave up to 293 pounds of air-dried biomass per acre—perfect fuel for hungry fires.

 

Dawn at Fossil Creek Reservoir Open Space. City officials were unable to apply herbicides or conduct a prescribed burn last fall due to the substantial amount of rainfall that hit the Front Range in September.

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The Fire Cycle

 

            ETHANY Bradley planned to search for extra-terrestrials on Mars.

            Instead, she ended up studying aliens on Earth.

 

A biogeographer at the University of Massachusetts, Bradley is one of the leading researchers studying the link between cheatgrass and fire in the American West.

 

While scoping out tiny, green Martians may sound more glamorous than mapping a dull, green grass, Bradley finds other ways to get her outer space fix—namely by using satellite data to map cheatgrass distribution.

 

As a graduate student at Brown University, one of Bradley's first tasks was to look over a series of remotely sensed datasets showing vegetation cover across the United States.

 

"We didn't see any trends in vegetation change, but we did see this really weird signal on parts of the West that greened up really strongly," she recalls. "They basically looked like a bunch of little golf courses in 1998, but in 1997 they looked like the rest of the regular desert."

 

1998, she later determined, was an El Niño year in the Western United States. In its wake, cheatgrass flourished.

 

"Interannual variability of precipitation definitely favors cheatgrass, particularly in desert systems, because most of the desert-adapted species can't do anything with all of the extra water," explains Bradley. “But cheatgrass can.”

 

Though thunderstorms and evening showers may give it a temporary advantage, in the long run, cheatgrass thirsts for only one thing.

 

“There's a fire feedback cycle associated with cheatgrass invasions,” explains Bradley.

 

The grass not only carries fire easily, allowing flames to travel from shrub to shrub in desert systems, it also recovers well after such intense heat. Native plants, on the other hand, are left to waste away in the scorched sand. This leads to "monotypic, or single species, as far as the eye can see" in some regions, says Bradley with concern, thus perpetuating the fire cycle.

 

In other words, it's a lose-lose situation: More cheatgrass leads to a higher risk of fire, and increased fire allows for even more cheatgrass.

 

"It's really the fire cycle that triggers the biggest impacts on native species, native plant diversity and native animal diversity," concludes Bradley.

 

Today, ecologists report cheatgrass infests more than 101 million acres in the United States. Much of this is in the sagebrush steppe communities of Wyoming and Colorado. In these dry, treeless environments it can take between 20 and 50 years for the land to recover after a fire.

 

 

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D'Amato turns to head back to his car, pausing under a lone tree to examine the smooth brome at its base. It's been mowed recently, signaling city staff are preparing the land for a prescribed burn in hopes of restoring native vegetation.

 

"By next July, next August (2014), I would think cheatgrass is going to be a pretty big issue."

 

"They basically looked like a bunch of little golf courses in 1998, but in 1997 they looked like the rest of the regular desert."

 

BETHANY BRADLEY

Researcher at University

of Massachusetts

Cheatgrass seedlings spring up in Fort Collins, Colo. Though little more than stubble at the beginning of March, cheatgrass grows rapidly compared to native perennial species. A few weeks after maturation, the grass will wither and die, leaving a large collection of fine fuels behind.

The larger concern, though, is the future of cheatgrass fires. Global climate change, scientists say, is likely to increase cheatgrass abundance throughout the West, with changing temperatures and precipitation patterns shifting suitable habitat northward into Idaho, Montana and northern Wyoming.

 

"If you reduce summer precipitation you really have the potential to knock back how well native vegetation does," says Bradley of Colorado's fate. "Fire is really related to summer precipitation, as well, because in a lot of areas, wetter summers mean less fires in general. As you start drying out these areas, you have a higher risk of fire, as well as invasion."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The fires aren't just burning all this land that nobody cares about. They're actually burning the land that we live on."

 

BETHANY BRADLEY

Researcher at University

of Massachusetts

By early summer, spring flushes of cheatgrass are completely dead and desiccated, giving fires in July and August an abundance of fine fuels to work with. And work with them they have.

 

In 2013, Bradley co-authored a study that found between 2000 and 2009, cheatgrass fueled 39 of the 50 largest wildfires in the Great Basin.

 

Datasets showing variability in year-to-year vegetation cover and NASA satellite records of burned areas across the United States allowed Bradley and her collaborators to confirm their long-

A tire rim lays in a ditch off Highway 71. More and more grass fires are being caused by human interactions with the wildland urban interface.

suspected theory that cheatgrass fuels fire regimes in shrub lands. More importantly, they discovered it fuels more frequent fires of longer duration, and spreads them quicker.

 

"The numbers showed it's basically burning twice as frequently as you would expect relative to its land area," notes Bradley. "One of the things that really surprised me a lot was the influence of cheatgrass on ignition of these fires."

 

While many fires are attributed to lightning strikes and careless campers, increasingly, cigarette butts and free-flying truck chains are sparking blazes.

And human interaction with infested land is increasing.

 

"The fires aren't just burning all this land that nobody cares about," says Bradley. "They're actually burning the land that we live on. All over the West people have been trying to get out into nature, farther and farther away from the cities. Those are the areas that are at high risk from cheatgrass invasion."

 

She stops to briefly mention the 19 Granite Mountain hotshots who were killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona last June.

 

"We're expecting to see more and more fires in the West, and it connects back to seeing more and more … loss of people and property associated with those fires."

 

The remnants of Gary and Linda Blomenkamp's home in Last Chance, Colo. Their house was one of the two occupied homes that burned. Without insurance, they were forced to move on from the small, rural community.

The Last Chance Fire

 

                ARLYS Swan never saw the fire.

 

Instead she saw great plumes of black smoke, descending on wheat fields and roadways. She saw smoldering telephone poles with embers glinting in the dark. And she saw her house transformed into a basement full of ash.

 

Grass fires aren't uncommon in a region defined by drought and high winds. Downed power lines can set fields alight in a matter of seconds, though often such fires are easily contained. June 25, 2012 was a different story.

 

 

At first, Swan didn't pay too much attention to the looming cloud of smoke. Local fire crews were good at getting such things under control. Still, she decided to leave her massage therapist job in Brush, Colo., early that Monday to squeeze in a visit with her two nieces. As she drove down Highway 71, Swan grew nervous. The closer she got to Last Chance, the worse the plume of smoke looked. A quick stop at her brother and sister-in-law's nearby home confirmed her fears: They'd received two reverse 911 calls. She needed to turn around.

 

She scooped up her two Labrador mixes, Stella and Jewel, and headed to Woodrow, Colo., but within five minutes of her arrival, she was evacuated. The fire was moving. Fast.

 

It wasn't long before her phone rang.

 

"My brother called and he said, 'Your house is on fire.'"

 

Within minutes, the grass fire had swallowed Swan's cherished family photo albums, her beloved books and her mother's wedding ring.

 

Nearly two years later, Swan has rebuilt on the same patch of parched land, 12 miles north of Last Chance's "downtown." But the house, she says, didn't cure her newfound skepticism toward possessions.

 

 

Burned fence posts protrude from the ground along Highway 71. The 2012 Last Chance Fire burned through 45,000 acres, making it the fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado history.

Marlys Swan stands with her dogs Stella (left) and Jewel in front of the remains of her old home. Swan was able to salvage few things — a few pieces of ceramic, snippets of books. She moved into her new house (background) this August.

 

 

"I went through a period of time where I didn't really want to replace anything. I kind of wanted the house, but then it was hard for me to try and get things for the house. It's that feeling of loss. I just really don't want to go through that too much anymore," she says.

 

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Just off Highway 71, Donald Nickell rests against the pale yellow siding of his mobile home, munching on an assortment of nuts. A paper-thin layer of snow covers his fields.

 

"In 1964 I built the Last Chance Dairy King and my wife and I ran it for 30 years," he says with pride. The ice creamery is just visible from the front yard he's decorated with an eclectic mix of garden art. Sculpted chameleons stalk quaint wooden birdhouses. A set of wind chimes lends a few notes to the breeze. But the tinkling sound of hollow metal is just as much of a warning sign out here as it is a musical statement.

 

With his white hair and leathery farmer's tan, Nickell is practically a piece of Last Chance history.

 

He can still remember a time when there were 14 Dairy Kings—not Queens—scattered across Colorado. He remembers the schoolgirls and boys who staffed his franchise, scooping and flirting their way through the hot summer months. He remembers the drought that shut the shop's doors for good a few years ago. And he remembers the fire.

 

"It was a real, real windy day, and boy it came down through here like you can't believe," he recalls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- - -

 

Justin Wagers also knows a thing or two about cheatgrass and fire. The Woodrow, Colo. resident splits his time between the family grain farm and volunteer firefighting with the Southwest Washington County Fire Protection.

 

Like Nickell, Wagers manages his fields carefully to prevent against an infestation of the Eurasian grass. But as a firefighter, there's no escaping it.

 

"I guarantee there was lots of cheatgrass that was burned," he says. "When you get a really wet fall and a really wet spring, you get a lot of cheatgrass that gets real green and nice, and then it's dead by the middle of June. After that it's nothing but a bunch of fuel for fire sitting out there."

 

Wagers was in the middle of the wheat harvest the day of the Last Chance Fire, 14 miles from the local fire hall.

 

He and his brother, Jonathan, quickly headed for the station, but were running a little bit behind some of the other crews that had responded to the blaze.

 

As they barreled along County Road 20, their fire truck hit a spot of dense smoke.

 

"The smoke came across the roadway and we just didn't have visibility anymore. We went off into the steeper part of the ditch."

 

 

 

 

"I was worried. Everybody was worried. I was out here with my water hose, but I never had anything burn. Even the Dairy King didn't burn."

 

With his livelihood locked up in the land—Nickell farms 2,600 acres of wheat in and around Last Chance—he's more in tune with the local grasses than most, and the danger they pose.

 

"Cheatgrass is just like gasoline—the same as tumbleweeds," he says with a nod. "It's usually in the road ditches and along the edges of fields, but of course we work our ground all the time so we keep it killed off."

Donald Nickell built the Last Chance Dairy King in 1964 with his wife, Jane. Unlike many Last Chance residents, Nickell gained something from the fire—an orphaned silver badger he named 'Freddy.' The badger has visited Nickell every night since the fire.

 

As the flames engulfed the stranded fire engine, the Wagers' boys made a speedy escape.

 

"Grass that was maybe two to three inches tall was burning flames that were starting telephone poles on fire, 20 feet in the air."

 

"I'd never seen anything like it. It was about 107 degrees that day. The humidity was two percent. It was perfect conditions for a fire."

 

Though that may have been the first truck lost to a grass fire in the county, fires had swallowed buildings before.

 

In 1989, a small cheatgrass fire came within 50 feet of Jim Kleinschmidt's home on the southwest corner of the intersection of U.S. 36 and Highway 71. It burned the entire hillside, and a few other homes, before two fire trucks from Akron and Deer Trail, arrived. It would be years before Last Chance built its own station.

 

"It started behind that white building over there that used to be a café . They were out burning trash and it got out. The cheatgrass was really thick out there in the lower area," says Kleinschmidt, who works in the anchor installation business where he fastens down everything from oil rigs to Olympic bleachers.

 

Perched on the back of his truck, radio playing a static-laced melody, Kleinschmidt, a Kansas native, looks right at home.

 

Though he lost 80 trees across his property during the Last Chance Fire, it didn't take long for him to break new ground and replace the lost foliage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I just think it's a part of life out here," he explains.

 

While Kleinschmidt may accept the risk of fire out here, he's unwilling to stand by and watch fire destroy the community he's lived in for 26 years.

 

"I had water hoses all around the yard," he says. "I was out there, trying to put out the fire, but the smoke was so bad that I threw the hose down and ran into my shop to get out of the smoke until a fire truck came through with its spray guns and knocked it down.  So I got up and got back out there with hoses and just started chasing the fire through the yard, through the trees and around to the north side."

 

Jim Kleinschmidt has lived in Last Chance since 1988. In the Last Chance fire he saved the community's church from burning when he noticed an old railroad tie burning right next the building, after the fire had been contained.

 

Prairie fires will often burn across the ground, skipping taller poles and trees in favor of easy-to-reach fuel. But a few weeks' worth of oppressive heat that June had transformed electrical poles into kindling.

 

"They were so tinder dry that a lot of those ignited. I think, altogether, they lost 90-something [poles]," says Kleinschmidt. In nearby pine trees and cedars, flames vaulted skyward, reaching heights of 20 to 30 feet.

 

Where flames weren't flying, they were crawling, squeezing their way through culverts under the highway.

 

"Wherever there was a drainage structure, it was just like a torch," says Kleinschmidt, sliding off the tailgate to tour his property.

 

Behind his work shed, new saplings soak up the mid-March sun.

 

"Marlys Swan lost her house and she was the first one in my yard the next morning to see how I was doing. She lost her whole house. That's the kind of lady she is; she's a very strong Christian," Kleinschmidt says with a smile. "And that's what keeps everything together—the faith and the community."

 

A short ways away from where the fire started sits a single white cross. Faux yellow flowers decorate the memorial to a truck driver who died after striking a stray cow one night.

 

"That fire started just south of there," says Kleinschmidt, his expression giving way to divine amazement. "It went all around that cross and never burnt that cross up."

 

He comes to a stop at the southern end of his modest home. Indecisive weather has turned his driveway into muddy quicksand.

 

"We're survivors who live out here," he emphasizes. "Everybody knows everybody. Somebody said if you had a million dollars would you move? I said 'Heck no.' If I lost my house I still wouldn't move. These kinds of communities are rare these days."

 

 

"I'd never seen anything like it. It was about 107 degrees that day. The humidity was two percent. It was perfect conditions for a fire."

 

JUSTIN WAGERS

Volunteer Firefighter, Southwest Washington County Fire Protection

 

"Somebody said if you had a million dollars would you move? I said 'Heck no.' If I lost my house I still wouldn't move. These kinds of communities are rare these days."

 

JIM KLEINSCHMIDT

Last Chance resident

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Burns and Baby Diapers

 

            ROWELS plunge deeper and deeper into the soil, scraping away at

            the land. In the distance, trenchers cut sharp lines into the earth, as if searching for the roots of the Rockies.

 

It's spring break for students at Colorado State University, and a handful have elected to spend their vacation here, 20 minutes north of Fort Collins, covered in dirt.

 

"My colleague […] has a great way of putting it—it's not hard to kill cheatgrass, it's hard to get rid of it," says Cynthia Brown as she pats the land with the flat side of her shovel.

 

Brown, a plant invasion ecologist, is a cheatgrass aficionado. In the past few years she's partnered with experts at the University of Wyoming to develop the Rocky Mountain Cheatgrass Management Project.

 

Sporting a sun hat, a child’s floral knee pads and gardening gloves, Brown vigorously scoops soil from her designated plot.

 

"I started studying cheatgrass when I heard from other land managers around the Front Range that they were beginning to see it in places they'd never had it before, and in abundances they'd never seen before,” she explains. “We know it's caused great problems in the Great Basin, so people are concerned it might cause the same kinds of problems here."

 

Now, Brown is experimenting with soil to find a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

want to have over cheatgrass."

 

While such a strategy isn't appropriate for large-scale application, it may have enough of an influence on abandoned farmland and roadsides to make a difference, especially when it comes to fire ignition.

 

Such a technique could garner more support from the public, too. Currently, the primary way to deal with cheatgrass is through herbicide application and prescribed burns—both contentious practices with environmentalists and land managers.

 

"The most effective treatment in the fall has been an herbicide called 'Plateau,'" says D'Amato. As weed district manager for Larimer County, it's up to him to figure out the best management strategies for the noxious weed.

"We've had real good luck with [Plateau] in Larimer County. A lot of small acreage land owners have used that, and in a fall application you can get 99 percent, but it only works up until the grass reaches a tillering stage (the production of side shoots from the main stem)."

 

While prescribed burns may be "sexier," they're often less effective, and, in certain circumstances, can actually help the plant they're intended to eradicate.

 

"It's got to be hot enough,” D’Amato says. “If it (isn’t), you've just kind of opened up the canopy for it, and it may do even better.”

 

Though burns and herbicides may help in the battle against infestation, land managers have given up hope of ever weeding out downy brome.

 

"We're not going to eradicate cheatgrass. What we hope to do is just shift the dominance from cheat to a native perennial plant community," D'Amato says. "If you have a good, competitive stand of perennial vegetation, it keeps it down to what I consider to be a tolerable level."

 

While the Last Chance Fire burned nearly everything in its path, this cross, located near where the fire started, survived the wild blaze. Some residents consider it a message from God.

 

 

By adding super absorbent polymers—the stuff found in baby diapers—to the soil, Brown hopes they may be able to chip away at cheatgrass' early-season advantage. The polymers suck up the water and nitrogen used by cheatgrass, and then release it at a leisurely pace, giving slower-growing perennials a chance to catch up.

 

"We're just trying to tip the competitive balance to favor the species that we

 

"We're just trying to tip the competitive balance to favor the species that we want to have over cheatgrass."

 

CYNTHIA BROWN

Plant invasion ecologist at Colorado State University

Cynthia Brown shovels dirt in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. A plant invasion ecologist at Colorado State University, Brown has been working with graduate students to determine whether the introduction of polymers into soil may weaken the advantage cheatgrass has over other species.

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The Flush

 

            Y the spring of 2014, D'Amato's predictions of a plague of the invasive

            grass in Colorado appear to be coming true.

 

"It's definitely looking like a bad year for cheatgrass—seeing thick infestations everywhere," he wrote in a March 28 email.

 

But he was also hopeful. In fact, D'Amato says, this could be the year to knock it back.

 

"Typically [cheatgrass] seed lasts two to four years in the soil. It doesn't have a lot of dormancy past that. When you get a really good moisture year like [last] year, the majority of that seed might have germinated.”

 

With so many seeds sending up shoots, the plant is vulnerable.

 

“If you can manage it, this is really the time to do it.”

 

Out at Last Chance, the 2014 fire season has already begun. On March 31, a small 120-acre grass fire burned through County Roads D and 24.

 

But more pressing news is at hand.

 

"We got a new guy moving in, so we're going to be up to nine people," announces Jim Kleinschmidt. By four-corner town standards, it's a population boom in a community that's lost many of its residents to time and fire over the years.

 

With any luck, he'll be an easy recruit to help out Kleinschmidt and Donald Nickell on their latest project—reopening the Dairy King in time for next summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2014. Gloria Dickie, University of Colorado Boulder