Aaron Winter stood near the parking lot of the Flying W Ranch on Tuesday, surveying the remains of the popular Colorado Springs attraction that was lost in the Waldo Canyon fire.
Fresh snow partially shrouded piles of blackened trees that were removed from about 1,700 acres at the ranch. Only 100 acres on the property escaped the blaze, which scorched more than 18,000 acres in the foothills west of the city last June.
“The reality is it’s not the same Flying W and it never will be,” Winter said.
The ranch employee of 16 years, who is now executive director of the Flying W Foundation and head of the ranch’s sales and marketing department, described temporary plans for the plot of land off Chuckwagon Road that once boasted several buildings, a miniature train and Old West-style food and music.
Winter said the ranch plans to build a pole barn and continue its chuckwagon meals and Flying W Ranch Wranglers shows by mid-June. He said contractors are submitting bids to do the work on the temporary facility that will seat up to 800 people and begin the ranch’s revival.
“We hope to be open by the anniversary of the fire,” Winter said, referring to June 26 — one year after the Waldo Canyon blaze roared into the city and destroyed 347 structures.
The Flying W Wranglers and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra will hold a concert June 26 at Mountain Shadows Park on Flying W Ranch Road. Winter said the event will be free to the public except for the food, which will be sold to raise money for fire and flood mitigation at the ranch as well as safety equipment for volunteers.
Winter said the permanent plans for the ranch are still somewhat a mystery.
Russ Wolfe, who founded the Flying W with his late wife Marian in the early 1960s, said the Wolfe family is discussing several options for the ranch’s 1,800 acres.
“We don’t exactly know which way to go,” Wolfe said. “We’ve got several different directions that we’re looking into and we’re probably going to have something going in another year.”
That’s as much as Wolfe would elaborate. His daughter, Leigh Ann Thurston, who is also involved in many of the ranch’s ownership decisions, couldn’t be reached for comment.
According to Winter, the Flying W Foundation would like to morph the 15 acres that used to house an entertainment venue into a place that is more focused on Old West education. The foundation is exploring the idea of scouring the western part of the country, purchasing historic buildings and bringing them back to Colorado Springs.
Winter said Tuesday that his life “made a completely drastic U-turn” after the fire.
“Any other day, I would have been standing here with someone who was looking to have a company picnic here at the ranch,” he said.
Since last summer, Winter’s focus has been on flood mitigation on the property and on trespassers who “want to see the devastation and see what the ranch looks like.”
Colorado Springs police have responded to 10 instances in which people ignored “No Trespassing” signs at the ranch’s gate. The offense can bring curious people up to $500 in fines, Winter said.
While he understands the desire to see the ruins of the ranch, Winter said, “It’s just not safe.” Almost every tree, bush and rock that can be seen from the parking lot has been blackened by the fire and is unstable.
The soil is ash-covered and struggles to hold rainwater. Volunteers, ranch staffers and members of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte have used $90,000 in Emergency Watershed Protection money for extensive mitigation work.
Winter said log erosion barriers have been placed on slopes, seeds and mulch have been spread, and three retention ponds have been built on the property.
On Saturday, the ranch celebrated Earth Day by planting more than 3,000 trees supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to “get this mountainside back to what it was before,” Winter said.
“Our biggest concern is protecting the folks that live downstream from us,” he said.