Wildernest residents, Summit County locals reflect on Ride The Rockies during wildfire outbreak
Gary Zellner still hasn’t seen firsthand how close his second home in Wildernest came to burning in the Buffalo Mountain Fire.
That’s because on Tuesday morning, when the 91-acre fire broke out near the Buffalo Mountain trailhead, the Denverite and approximately 2,000 other Ride The Rockies bike tour participants were in the middle of a 48-mile loop to and from Steamboat Springs. His cellphone in his gear bag back in Steamboat, Zellner didn’t find out about the fire until he finished the tour and was greeted by a bevy of unanswered texts.
“And every one of them was kind of the same,” Zellner said Friday afternoon while relaxing in the shade at the Breckenridge Recreation Center, the finish line of this year’s six-day, 418-mile Ride The Rockies cycling tour. “‘I hope your place is OK.’”
Back in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday afternoon, Zellner googled for local news broadcasts and articles about what had gone on that day so close to his Wildernest home. He saw the sudden conflagration, the aerial rounds of slurry bombs and the ominous plume of smoke lingering into the late afternoon.
“My family, they were texting me and asking, ‘Do you know where the fire is? Do you know what’s going on? And I’m like, ‘No, I’m on Ride The Rockies. I don’t know what’s going on.’”
The situation has improved enough that evacuations of neighborhoods like Zellner’s were lifted Thursday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Zellner felt a sense of calm about the scary situation. Judging by the news reports, it seemed everything possible was being done to combat the fire.
To comfort him further, there was Zellner’s pre-existing knowledge of the recent fire mitigation work the U..S. Forest Service undertook years ago. That’s when they cut fire breaks — 500-foot-wide flatland buffers cleared of trees and other fuels — into the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods near the popular Buffalo Mountain trailhead after the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
“So I felt like that fire mitigation and the resources was all you could do,” he said. “They were doing it. And it worked.”
This week’s 33rd annual Ride The Rockies tour never was altered by the fires. But it was certainly touch-and-go through the week as the cyclists meandered through some of this state’s most iconic mountain terrain while wildland fires burned throughout Colorado.
Before the tour even departed Breckenridge on Sunday morning, the 416 Fire down in Durango had already been raging for more than a week. The first wildfire to ever close the San Juan National Forest in its 113-year history, its effects were felt by some Ride The Rockies cyclists, including Renne Lockey of Leadville. As of Friday afternoon, the 416 Fire had grown to nearly 33,000 acres with 18 percent containment.
Lockey departed Breckenridge while two friends stayed at her home in Leadville in order to escape the smoky conditions of the 416 Fire down by her home in Durango.
Lockey found out about the Buffalo Mountain Fire on Tuesday evening when she checked her phone and saw a text from her Boulder firefighter friends who had been rerouted from the 416 Fire to help at Buffalo Mountain.
To add to the precarious situation, Ride The Rockies participants also dealt with uncertainty regarding the Bocco Fire near Wolcott, which was first reported the same day the tour left Breckenridge on Sunday. Come Monday, the second day of the tour, cyclists rode the 79 miles from Edwards to Steamboat Springs while smoke warnings persisted in Eagle County.
“The first day there was a lot of wind,” Lockey said. “So I just got online to check out the news to find out what was happening each day. Because when there’s wind, there are going to be some fires in the summer.”
The tour carried on each day with regular pre- and post-ride course updates from tour directors. Though there ultimately were none, tour participants were advised in advance of the final day that re-routes could be possible with the tour returning through the heart of Summit County from Winter Park.
But aside from one change at an aid station in Silverthorne, Friday’s itinerary wasn’t altered. To boot, cloudy skies, cool temperatures and even a bit of rain in the afternoon provided riders the opportunity to zoom the 87 miles back to the finish line at the Breckenridge Recreation Center faster than they anticipated.
One of those riders was Ride The Rockies veteran Marcela Salazar of Dillon. Climbing 5,187 feet from Winter Park to Breckenridge, the majority of cyclists crested Ute Pass north of Silverthorne late Friday morning, signifying their re-entry into Summit County. It was also their first moment glimpsing Buffalo Mountain all week.
“We were expecting to see smoke,” Salazar said, “and we didn’t even see any haze or any smoke at all. The air quality was good. It was all good.”
As for Zellner, when he crested Ute Pass, with its majestic view of Buffalo Mountain and the Gore Range, he fought through a week’s worth of physical and mental fatigue to eye the location of the fire. Pedaling through Silverthorne, he saw from a distance how much the situation had improved since Tuesday. And as he looked back at the burn mark while he pedaled over Dillon Dam, Zellner craved both better perspective and another Summit County outdoors adventure.
“The crazy thought in me said, ‘I should go climb Peak 1 tomorrow,’” Zellner said, “‘get a good shot of it.’”
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