Extension aids local wildfire recovery efforts


When a wildfire blazed across the Beulah Valley earlier this month, Pueblo County Extension personnel quickly opened an emergency shelter for livestock in danger at the Colorado State Fairgrounds.

Just 20 miles southwest of Pueblo, the terrain ranges from forested areas to high plains. A potentially devastating fire that ignited in the early afternoon of Oct. 3 resulted in nearly 5,230 acres, eight homes, and 16 structures burned, more than 2,000 residents of the Beulah Valley and the town of Beulah were evacuated. The Beulah Hill fire not only threatened residents and their homes but also many animals before it was contained on Oct. 8.

The shelter at the fairgrounds was open throughout the week, with volunteers and Extension staff sheltering 94 animals, including 46 large animals. Staff stayed at the fairgrounds 24 hours a day and animal feed was donated by area residents. Local firefighters were instrumental in saving numerous homes including a mobile home park as well as assisting with the rescue of animals in the area.

Missing livestock were a concern during the fire. One rancher reported up to 30 cows missing, another was searching for a bull, and one landowner was unable to locate his five yaks.

Extension ‘ahead of the game’

“This is a great example of people pulling together in difficult and trying time,” said Norm Dalstead, CSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Economics specialist. “Pueblo County Extension faculty, staff and volunteers were ahead of the game with providing shelter for displaced animals from many farms and homes in the area.”

“Being on the front lines of a wildfire of this magnitude is not an easy task, but knowing I had everyone’s support made it easier to focus on the task at hand of suppressing this fire,” said Tom Laca, Extension agent for small acreage, range and natural resources management. “I am proud to be a part of the Beulah community but equally proud to be a part of the CSU Extension community.”

grass-fire-with-fire-truckLaca quickly became part of the Burned Area Emergency Response Team, joining experts from the Natural Resource Conservation Service  and other agencies. Since the end of the fire, they have been evaluating the extent of damage to the area, and are recommending mitigation efforts to stabilize the soils and the land from further damage.

“I appreciate working with all of these other agencies in order to provide for a recovery of the land and the people who were directly affected.”

Landowner meetings were organized to pass information on to them on what Extension efforts what they can do to aid in this process.

“There was a lot of rangeland pasture burnt but it was a fast-moving fire,” said Michael Fisher, Pueblo County Extension director. “In many locations the crowns of grass clumps still appear healthy. The soil does not look terribly scorched and there should be a good grass recovery if we don’t have soil erosion.” Heavy rain could cause flooding in the canyon terrain.

Saving homes, saving animals

img_0359Extension employees assisting at the state fairgrounds animal evacuation center ranged from 4-H youth development to office staff. Carol Kuhns, Devin Engle, Laura Krause, Carolyn Valdez, & Valerie Billings (all from the Pueblo Extension office), along with Carl Beeman from Huerfano County Extension, were indispensable at the evacuation center.

“It wouldn’t have been successful without them and our small group of volunteers,” said Fisher. “I’ve had a half dozen people who have told me they personally credit Tom Laca for saving their homes, including one of his fellow firefighters.”

“The assistance they provided for people, their homes, and animals is a clear snapshot of the types of things they do every day in your valuable roles,” said Ashley Stokes, Colorado State University assistant vice president for Engagement and deputy director of Extension. “Dealing with a natural disaster takes an extra amount of dedication. I know their communities are truly grateful.”

Educational opportunity

A side benefit of the wildfire is the opportunity to work with area school children. Laca is collaborating on a longer term project with students who will evaluate the different ecosystems that burned and track recovery over several years.

“We hope to use this in the classroom, following those students who experienced the fire firsthand through each grade level, as a teaching moment about our natural resources and fire’s effect on the land,” Laca said. “I think this will be a great opportunity to educate the youth, as well as adults, on issues with our natural resources and increase their awareness of our fragile ecosystems.”

The Beulah area is on alert again for potential evacuation, due to the Junkins Fire that spread to over 16,000 acres by Oct. 18. The fire, near Westcliffe, has led to reopening of the animal evacuation center at the state fairgrounds.