Happy New Year to each of you!
I hope your holiday season was restful, festive and joyous and that 2019 is off to a great start already. At La Plata County, the year ahead offers change, challenge and opportunities. While we are all rolling up our sleeves to dig in, there are some significant milestones and events to reflect on first.
The 416 Fire was a defining endeavor for our community in 2018. We knew early in the year that the fire season ahead was likely to be a challenging one, and as the months ticked by, conditions only worsened. Very little snow, coupled with very little rain in the fall, combined with high temperatures and low relative humidity to create significant fire danger very early in the season. The Board of County Commissioners had enacted Stage 1 fire restrictions on May 1 – at least a full month earlier than is typical. On June 1, the day the 416 Fire started, we had enacted Stage 2 restrictions.
The conditions were not in our favor, but the spectacular coordinated response from local, regional and federal fire teams meant that the 54,000-acre fire did not result in a single injury nor a single lost structure. That was not just a matter of luck, and we have so many men and women to be thankful to for keeping our community safe throughout the fire. With more than 1,000 homes evacuated at various times during the 416 Fire, there were tremendous impacts on families. We are so very fortunate that each of the individuals displaced had a home to return to when evacuations were lifted.
The challenges were not over once the fire had calmed, though. Fire not only burns vegetation, it changes soil conditions so that water is not easily absorbed. Summer monsoons falling on the 416 Fire burn scar delivered helpful rain that turned into harmful mud and debris flows that affected residents who had already endured the stress and strain of evacuation and flames nearby. These floods displaced numerous residents, forced the evacuation of the KOA campground and caused significant damage to properties below the burn scar.
The county has been steadily working to find resources to help address the damage, and has secured funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to conduct mitigation work on properties affected by the flooding and debris flow. The state of Colorado has indicated it will provide additional funding to help offset the cost, and we plan to begin that work in the spring. We are so pleased to be able to coordinate this direct support to folks who struggled through a very difficult summer.
I am hopeful that 2019 is not a year defined by drought, fire and flood and the snowstorms that painted La Plata County white through the New Year holiday are an auspicious sign. In just four days, our region’s snowpack grew to comforting levels, and already more snow has fallen this winter season than all of the 2017-2018 season. This winter gift will pay dividends in the spring and summer months to come, and I am so grateful for it.
In the spirit of gratitude and reflection, I want to thank outgoing Commissioner Brad Blake for his thoughtful and dedicated service over the past four years. It has been an honor to work with Brad in service to La Plata County and his leadership has served this community well during his term and long before it. That will surely continue, and we wish Brad all the very best.
We also welcome incoming Commissioner Clyde Church and look forward to serving La Plata County together.
Perhaps the biggest change 2019 has brought to La Plata County already is County Manager Joanne Spina’s retirement. Joanne retired on Jan. 2 – her 30-year anniversary with the county. Her unwavering commitment to earning and keeping the public’s trust in all county service defines our organizational values and is a legacy that we all intend to carry forward into the new year and far beyond. Joanne is an absolute institution and we all owe her a great debt of gratitude for her hard work and dedication to La Plata County. Chuck Stevens, who has been assistant county manager since 2017, is interim county manager and he is singularly equipped to move La Plata County forward in 2019 to meet the challenges we face.
I hope you all stay involved and engaged in the many priorities and projects afoot in the county this year and I look forward to working with you again. In the meantime, enjoy the snow!
Gwen Lachelt is outgoing chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.