The name doesn't sound promising. It's certainly no Palm Springs or Coral Gables. In place of verdant assurances, the town offers little more than drought and desolation. And yet that didn't stop them from coming—Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, cattle-haulers and tractor trailers rolled through by the hundreds on their way to Kansas' dusty plains. That is, until the construction of I-70 in the late 1960s and early '70s brought the community to a halt.

 

Today, Last Chance, Colorado, is all but a ghost town—only eight people remain in the isolated community. But in 2012 a cheatgrass fire put the four-corner town on the map once again. Ignited by a flat tire, the fire burned through 45,000 acres in just over a day, earning it the title of Colorado's fourth largest wildfire in history.

 

In the spring of 2014 I made several visits to Last Chance to capture the town's story for a larger multimedia piece on wildfire in the West.

AN ALIEN INVADER

 

The primary culprit in the Last Chance Fire was an invasive grass known as cheatgrass, or downy brome. The brome "cheats" native vegetation out of precious water and nutrients, and has become a huge problem in the West when it comes down to the fire cycle—cheatgrass thrives in adverse conditions.

 

Just north of Fort Collins, researchers from Colorado State University are tackling the plant's invasion in a unique way—by introducing polymers (the stuff found in baby diapers) into the soil to soak up water and nutrients before cheatgrass blooms, they're hoping to take away the plant's competitive edge.

CHEATGRASS

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