July 8, 2013 Updated: July 8, 2013 at 7:10 am
Eighty-seven-year-old Ruth Ann Steele looks like she might be devoured any second by a gargantuan pile of organic tree waste behind her.
Don't be deceived.
The Mulch Lady, as she is called, is a woman to match 40-foot-tall pungent mountains of ground-up shrubs, branches needles, leaves, and cones that accumulate in the forest.
As a volunteer, she has headed up the Black Forest Slash/Mulch Program of El Paso County for 20 years, and she works in a manner similar to the equipment here - grinding up and spitting out problems expertly as they show up.
At the moment, the problem she is wrestling with is too much mulch and not enough mulch takers.
On a recent evening, more than 345 people arrived with trailers bulging with slash they cleared from their property. It generated about 702 cubic yards of mulch.
The Black Forest fire has gotten mitigation procrastinators off their duffs, she says. They are taking in twice the amount of slash and sending out about half as much as usual.
The traffic got so bad the other evening that Steele, a retired school teacher, got out in the road to direct the long line of vehicles lined up in both directions to enter the site near Herring and Shoup roads.
"You didn't have your orange emergency vest on," chided Jeff DeWitt, a site leader. But Steele was wearing her usual baseball cap. It was once a deep forest green but has turned light khaki from long volunteer hours in the sun. Her uniform also includes big sunglasses, long sleeves to avoid branch scratches, and on her ears, sparkling red earrings, that she calls her "synthetic rubies."
The slash/mulch program is run by volunteers and funded by El Paso County and donations. Homeowners bring their slash to the site, where it is ground up into mulch. In turn, they can take home mulch virtually for free. In fact, El Paso and Teller county residents can get mulch whether they donate their underbrush or not. On weekends, for $5 per bucket, a mechanical loader loads the mulch into a vehicle, or patrons can shovel it for free.
The program is sponsored by the Black Forest Fire Department, El Paso County Environmental Division, and Colorado State Forest Service.
In spite of that connection, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa warned recently in wake of the Black Forest fire that landscaping with mulch is not too hot of an idea. If placed next to homes and buildings, it is a fire hazard. He was pointing to an example of what not create - a deep pillowlike pile of mulch used as landscaping near School in the Woods.
El Paso County Assistant Fire Marshal Scott Campbell says, "We like to see rock, not mulch."
"But mulch is just trees in a different form. It will burn. So we are asking people who use it to space it back from the house. Use rock next to the house."
The larger pieces, the type of landscaping bark often stained red and found in garden shops can be especially flammable. "It is old dried-up wood ready to burn."
He does say that mulch does hold soil moisture and prevents erosion if put down in the right place.
All this controversy has Steele a bit miffed. "It's nonsense," she says.
Of course, she agrees that mulch should be used "strategically and intelligently," and notes that all those pine needles and slash that might fall on it has to be raked. But fires that creep along the ground instead of hopping from tree top to tree top are slower burning.
She points out that the slash/mulch sight survived the fire.
Trees surrounding the site are charred. But a line of trees where mulch had been blown sparingly underneath did not catch fire. The mulch piles in center of open space didn't burn either, in spite of a storm of embers.
Mulch piles can catch fire because they generate heat as the material decays. That hasn't happened at this site.
Site operators stir up the piles, which prevents heating, and they take temperature readings of the piles often to make sure they don't reach more than 152 degrees.
Several days ago, Chris Hinkle, a Castle Rock fireman and owner of Colorado Wildfire Specialists, a mitigation company, was bringing in a load of slash. He noted mulch helps with erosion and is being laid down at the Waldo Canyon fire site. If the mulch is kept moist, it can slow down the burning process, too, and it keeps more flammable weeds and grasses from growing.
But he suggests judicious use and warns not to place wide swaths of mulch around homes.
Hinkle praises the Black Forest program.
While similar community recycling and fire mitigation programs around the state have lasted only a couple of years, this one has endured for two decades because of Steele's ability to attract volunteers. More than 400 volunteer help man the site in any one year,
"She's amazing. She keeps the volunteers rounded up," Hinkle says.
The program was started 20 years ago by Steele, who at the time was president of the Colorado Forestry Association, a lay organization that educates and works on forestry problems. Donations from the group and others provide about $8,000 to run the program.
El Paso County provides about $40,000 yearly for the grinding, which is done by Rocky Top Resources, a landscape materials company, which does the work at the Black Forest site. The site is on state-owned land.
When they created the program, she says, she couldn't find others to consult. "I looked for blueprints to use, so we had to fly by the seat of our pants."
She started the recycling and fire mitigation program, because they felt "we knew not if there would be a fire, but when."
She noted that long ago there had been smaller natural fires in the forest that helped keep undergrowth down naturally but eventually natural fires were knocked down, thus creating a lot of fuel that wasn't always mitigated.
"Getting people to mitigate is not easy," she says. "The work is intensive and difficult for some, and others want to be surrounded by trees. You can't tell people what to do."
Steele says her interest in the environment began in childhood when she lived on a farm in southeast Nebraska, where hogs, cattle, corn and soybeans were raised. "I was a farm girl and loved the trees and birds." She got a teaching degree from Peru State Teachers College, and soon afterward married James Steele, also a teacher. He died several years ago.
She taught music in Cherry Creek schools for about 25 years, and her husband taught in Denver. She helped students start an environmental club and wrote songs to be used in the education effort. A few years ago she was honored for that work.
The Steeles moved to the east edge of Black Forest in 1979. Her property was not harmed in the Black Forest fire.
On that day, Steele rushed to the slash/mulch site. "It was a hellish day. I was worried about my volunteers," she says. "I said 'if we burn we burn. We need to get out,' and about that time a deputy made us leave."
DeWitt is easing into the volunteer program leadership role that Steele has held all these years. "I hope I could keep it going like she has."
But he doubts she will retire soon.
She insists that she is trying to retire and that the program will continue because of the hard work of other volunteers.
Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371