We asked Boulder-based author and journalist Michael Kodas to tell us what it’s like on the ground during this horrific fire season. Kodas, who has toiled as a firefighter and is currently working on a book for Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt about global wildfire management, recently wrote an investigative story for non-profit reporting agency I-News Network about the clash between development and fire on Colorado’s Front Range.
By Michael Kodas
After weeks covering wildfires in Colorado, I took a Saturday off to climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was chatting with a couple rangers on Lumpy Ridge, when one of their radios started squawking.
“It’s crowning,” the radio called. “There are homes nearby.”
Moments later one of the rangers took a call from his wife, who reported that a friend had just shown up at their house with an armload of whatever she could grab as she ran out of her own home, across the street from the fire.
The rangers raced out to help but, within a few hours, the fire destroyed 22 houses just outside the gates of the national park and less than half a mile from the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center.
The fire in Estes Park, however, pales compared to the Waldo Canyon fire, which broke out on the same day near Colorado Springs and immediately became the highest priority fire in the nation. Tuesday a shift in the winds on the fifth consecutive day of a record-breaking heat wave sent the flames from that blaze into the suburbs of Colorado Springs, destroying as many as 300 homes. At the other end of Colorado’s Front Range, the High Park fire, which broke out two weeks before the Estes Park fire, has destroyed more than 250 homes and nearly 90,000 acres of timber. As I returned from visits to the devastation in Colorado Springs and Estes Park, a new blaze, the Flagstaff fire above Boulder, had sent a pre-evacuation notice to my own neighborhood.
There are many reasons for Colorado’s epic fire season. For a century, firefighters have been extinguishing blazes in many forests, allowing them to grow unnaturally dense with fuel. Longer and more severe droughts desiccate those fuels earlier in the season, and this year’s unusually thin snowpack is leaving high-elevation forests that rarely see fire tinder dry. The epic mountain-pine-beetle infestation, and other, less talked of pests like dwarf mistletoe are killing millions of trees, thereby adding more fuel to the fires.
“Our analysis shows that, between 2000 and 2010, more than 100,000 people moved into Colorado’s most combustible woodlands. Today, more than one in five Coloradans, about 1 million people, live in the state’s high-fire danger red zones.”
But another species intruding into the forest—humans—is having an equally significant impact on the fire regime of the Rockies. During my reporting on Colorado’s epic wildfire season, I worked with Burt Hubbard, an editor with the I-News Network, to compare Census data with Colorado’s red zone map, which marks the state’s most flammable forests. Our analysis shows that, between 2000 and 2010, more than 100,000 people moved into Colorado’s most combustible woodlands. Today, more than one in five Coloradans, about 1 million people, live in the state’s high-fire danger red zones. One in four of the state’s homes are located in those areas. In Colorado, the population living in high fire danger areas has risen from about 750,000 in 1990 to 1.1 million, and the number of homes in the red zones has grown from about 370,000 to 560,000. Almost one in six new Colorado residents faces high wildfire risk.
In fact, according to Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana, Colorado has five counties—Boulder, La Plata, Gilpin, Summit and Douglas—among the 20 with the most-developed wildland urban interfaces, or WUI—communities bordering fire-prone forests—in the West. In the Rocky Mountains, the state has the highest proportion of developed private land bordering public forests—21 percent—and, that rate of development is leading to increasing wildfire costs. Wildfires nationwide cost the federal government up to $3 billion annually—nearly half of the Forest Service’s budget and twice what they cost at the time of the Hayman Fire in 2002.
“This $3 billion is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters.
During the past 20 years, Colorado has also seen a marked increase in the number of wildfires and the amount of land burning. In the 1960s, Colorado averaged about 460 fires each year on state and private land that burned about 8,000 acres annually, according to Colorado State Forest Service records. By the 1990s, the annual averages were 1,800 fires burning 22,000 acres. In the past decade, those averages rose to 2,500 fires a year burning nearly 100,000 acres. A study in 2006 showed that between 1987 and 2003, the west had four times as many wildfires burning six times the amount of land as during the previous 16 years.
With Colorado experiencing the worst weather conditions for wildfire since the Hayman burn, foresters and firefighters alike fear this summer could bring more catastrophic blazes to the red zone population. This year’s drought is not yet as severe or widespread as 2002’s, but the area that’s most affected is the higher elevation timber country, which has the potential for large, catastrophic fires.
“The trends have been very similar (to 2002),” said Tim Mathewson, Fire Meteorologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Lakewood. “By May we were below 10 percent of normal snowpack… Our timber country is very susceptible to fire this year.”
Those high-elevation forests are also facing some of the greatest increases in population. Tania Schoennagel, a University of Colorado geography professor and a researcher at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, recently studied how current development trends are affecting wildfire risk. The research showed that areas zoned for future development are at even greater wildfire risk.
Earlier developments in the Colorado’s red zones were generally at lower elevation with more widely spaced trees and less steep terrain. Forests there, if excess fire suppression didn’t let them to grow unnaturally thick, tend to burn along the ground with low intensity. If those forests are restored to their historic density and health, homeowners there are likely to again confront less-intense fires.
But new developments in the red zone are increasingly at elevations above 8,000 feet in forests often dominated by lodgepole pine, which tend to burn in “stand-reducing” crown fires on steep slopes and in chimney-like canyons—terrain that magnifies the intensity of fires. Topographic maps show that all of the homes destroyed in the deadly Lower North Fork fire last March were at elevations between 8,000 and 8,500 feet.
“As you move up in elevation you get … very dense forests—those lodgepole pine forests,” Shoennagel said. “Characteristic of those are these high severity fires that happen very infrequently and burn through the treetops. They’re very difficult to fight.”
The increase in population drives some of the increase in wildfire. Most of the fire suppression that has allowed the fuel to build up in the forest, making this year’s mega-fires almost inevitable, is done to protect homes, communities and infrastructure in the forest. Each fire that’s suppressed leaves fuel in the forest that accumulates to feed more intense fires later. Today forests that only burned in lightning sparked fires are more often experiencing blazes started by people. Last March the Lower North Fork fire grew from a prescribed burn on coarsely chipped timber that was intended to prevent a more serious fire but ended up jumping its containment, destroying more than 20 homes and killing three people.
The FBI is investigating the cause of the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire. Target shooters have started several fires in Utah. A camp stove that blew over in the wind ignited one of the fires that have plagued Fort Collins, Colorado, this summer. And the day after the Estes Park fire broke out, a car tire blew out on Colorado’s eastern plains, sending sparks from the wheel rim into dry grasses beside the road. Within hours the Last Chance fire that those sparks ignited grew into Colorado’s fourth largest fire in history.
You can read Kodas’ I-News story, “Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger,” on the I-News website.