Lessons from Ashes: A Mountain Homesteading Community Finds Strong Leadership After Wildfires

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Recently a post on social media caught my attention. It was a small, remote cabin very similar to ours on a mountainside and about the same size. It was posted with a question of whether you could live there. There were about 400 comments and numerous re-posts. Most comments were from people who loved it and the solitude and peace it presented. Only a few were from people who were committed city dwellers who could not live like that. Several were from people who would like to vacation there but not live there. There were the usual questions about how far was shopping, medical, and groceries.  

Could you live in our cabin? The photo of the cabin coupled with the comments reminded me of our Colorado mountain cabin and the comments I have heard in the more than 23 years we have lived here full time. Because of the wildfire in 2018, our nearest neighbor is now about one mile away. Approximately half of our community lost their homes, so neighbors are more scarce. Self reliance is more of a reality now, because there are fewer full- or part-time residents in the community. Having watched this community grow over our time and now seeing it partially destroyed is heartbreaking. 

Small community problems. Our small community has been a micro reflection of our country. It was deeply divided over a broad spectrum of issues and subjects. People were divided and unwilling to cooperate with each other, making it hard to achieve a common goal. I’m guessing that most still residing in the community have forgotten the many small battles over the years and those who are no longer here and had their investment wiped out in a moment of time don’t consider those battles or issues worth remembering.

Disputes that divide are a waste of time. For those of us remaining on this mountain, our lives are now consumed with issues like snow removal — we get an average of 260 inches per year — finding firewood, roads being kept open, and land restoration, instead of picking fights or finding arguable issues with each other. Due to our length of time in this community, we are finding that skills and insights from our past serve us very well now. We have always been private people and now with even fewer people living nearby, we are less affected than those that crave social involvement.

A disaster brings out the best in some people. Our local leaders have risen to the new demands and are bringing our community back without partisan agendas. Disasters bring out the best in some people and our local leaders have certainly risen to the occasion. As I reflect back, I was involved in two disputes. Both were reported in blogs for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. One was regarding reckless application of an herbicide without regard for community safety. The other was about damming up a creek that adversely affected our native fish population.

Some issues deserve opposition. Both issues were serious threats to our community and those who would live here in the future. There are multiple ads on television now from lawyers seeking to represent people who believe they were affected by an herbicide. The damned stream was one of only a handful of streams that had native Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, fish that had been in our stream for thousands of years. Our government agencies were at a temporary stalemate recognizing they lacked proper legal backing for saving these native fish. Since then, a Colorado-New Mexico pact has been achieved to make sure these fish will be safe for future generations.

Minor issues waste time. Fierce battles that divided the community, like what type of a security gate, purchase of road equipment and a host of other community conflicts, all seem pretty petty now considering our community has been reduced by half. A wildfire — the third worse in Colorado’s history — has pretty much solved the petty squabbles of the past that previously plagued our community. If not for the wildfire and the resulting mud slides that washed out roads and property, I expect our community would still be somewhat fractured. Post wildfire, I have witnessed responsible leadership to deal with the difficult subsequent challenges.

Choosing our battles as a community of homesteaders. It has always been my opinion that a person should choose their battles carefully and only ones you can ultimately win. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers facilitated winning restoration of our stream and the Colorado Department of Agriculture helped win the reckless herbicide spraying issue. The herbicide was toxic and needed control and oversight by proper authorities. The dam in the stream was placed exactly where I had caught a 15-inch trout and I personally found it offensive.

Working together solves problems. As I see the news reported, I have compassion for those across our wonderful country that find benefit in dividing people over issues that one day will most likely be meaningless. Our community is only a tiny microscopic version of the larger problem and it took a disaster to put our community back on the path of an improved, forward thinking and cooperative community. It should not take a disaster for people to realize they can accomplish more by working together than against each other. Hopefully it won’t take a disaster to bring our entire country together again and working together for a common interest will once again prevail.

Reflecting as a community rebuilds after fire. This time of year when I go outside to shovel fresh snow surrounded by the total silence that fresh snow brings, I remember how it was before the wildfire and how it is now. There are new people building homes or buying houses that survived the wildfire where the owners no longer wish to chance another wildfire. It is an unforeseen new start and hopefully past history will not be repeated and it will be a community to enjoy life and mutual cooperation among neighbors.

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site atBruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

Author and researcher Linda Masterson knows what it’s like to flee a wall of flames in the middle of night, with just minutes to escape with her life and very little else. Her home in northern Colorado burned to the ground in the Crystal Fire in 2011. Now she’s sifted through information, resources and expert advice from across the country to put together a practical handbook and personal pocket guide for homeowners who want to be better prepared if disaster strikes.Order from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or by calling 800-234-3368.

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