With A Forecasted Shift In The Winds, Glenwood Springs Residents Are Caught Between Hope And Dread

August 16, 2020
Crews work near the Adventure Park outside Glenwood Springs, to slow the growth of the Grizzly Creek Fire. Crews work near the Adventure Park outside Glenwood Springs, to slow the growth of the Grizzly Creek Fire. Inciweb
Crews work near the Adventure Park outside Glenwood Springs, to slow the growth of the Grizzly Creek Fire.

With the Grizzly Creek fire burning roughly a mile away, Glenwood Springs is contending with thick smoke, a closed interstate and only a trickle of visitors — at a time of year the small resort town would usually be packed with tourists. 

Jan Legersky usually keeps the doors to her art-supply shop, The Artist’s Mercantile & Gallery, propped open but she can’t do that in this unrelenting, choking haze. Hardly anyone has been walking by anyway.

With no end in sight for the fire or the closure of Interstate 70, she’s worried about the morale in town, especially after the pandemic gutted the local economy this spring. 

“You get to the point you wonder how much more people can take,” she said.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
A heavy layer of smoke blankets Glenwood Springs, as the Grizzly Creek Fire burns near town Aug. 15, 2020.

Late Saturday morning, Jeff Graham was getting the restaurant he manages down by the Colorado River ready for the lunch crowd, even though he was pretty certain there would be no crowd. He estimated business was down between 75 and 80 percent at KC’s Wing House and Sports Bar.

“This is the time of year we do well, we make our money, we pay our bills,” he said. Instead, Glenwood has been a “ghost town” since the fire started Monday. “This right on top of COVID, it’s rough. It’s rough.”

What makes it sting a little more, he said, is that he thinks it could have been avoided. While fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze burning its way through Glenwood Canyon, many people in town believe it was human-caused. That could mean something like a spark from a vehicle or a cigarette tossed from a window. 

“If it was a lightning strike or something like that, it gets filed under ‘s**t happens,’ and that’s it,” Graham said. “But this, yeah, it doesn’t get filed under that for me.”

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Restaurant manager Jeff Graham outside KC's Wing House in Glenwood Springs. He says the Grizzly Creek fire came as the town was already hurting from the coronavirus pandemic. Aug. 15, 2020.

As locals lose income, they’re also preparing to see a very different Glenwood Canyon, with its sheer walls and lush trees and brush, when the fire is under control. Ken Murphy, who has worked in recreation in the canyon for 25 years, called it “heartbreaking.” 

“The canyon has meant everything to me,” he said. He was a river guide for years here before starting his own outfitter business, Glenwood Adventure Company, that does daily river runs through the canyon.

But Murphy still has hope. Murphy’s business also manages the permits for the popular hike to Hanging Lake, famous for its picturesque waterfalls and emerald-green pool. On Friday, he saw aerial images of the lake. It was surrounded by burned areas but looked relatively unscathed.

It was “like a miracle,” he said. 

“We have that patch of greenery amongst all the chaos in the canyon,” he said. The moment  he saw those verdant images, he said,  “All I could say way was: ‘Wow.’”

He knows the fire’s destructive path could change at any moment, but he’s heartened that so far the canyon’s Bair Ranch has also been spared. His company offers lodging and outdoor activities like horseback riding and off-road vehicle trips there. 

He hopes the canyon can “come back to its glory,” he added. Until then, he plans to have his river guides use the burn scars to illustrate to guests just how fragile the area is. 

But that’s all in the future, and who knows how far. No one’s rafting the canyon now, and fire officials are bracing for the winds to shift on Sunday. That could fan the fire’s flames and push it closer to town, adding dread to the town’s uncertainty. When it finally dies down, Murphy hopes the best parts of the gorge will still be standing.