It would be an understatement to suggest that nature has been unkind to Colorado this summer. But, that would be inaccurate. Nature acts without conscience and, this summer, has burnished its image of force and fury into the hearts and minds of Coloradans in an unforgettable way.
Beginning early in June, through lightning strikes, carelessness or acts of foolishness, fire has burned a whole new chapter into the annals of Colorado high country natural disasters. But two fires, the High Park fire in Larimer County and the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs have challenged firefighters, broken hearts and left entire regions scarred beyond all recognition.
Firefighters are now confident that the Waldo Canyon fire, which began last Tuesday and necessitated the evacuation of 32,000 people, is simply the latest act in nature’s play. It brought a lovely but not opulent housing development just west of Colorado Springs into living rooms around the world. It has now been contained. Unfortunately, the price for dominion was nearly 18,000 acres of scorched earth, 350 homes and the loss of at least two lives.
To the north, in Larimer County, firefighters are winding down efforts and beginning their assessment on another huge blaze. The High Park fire, which began nearly three weeks ago, scorched more than 87,000 acres of forest destroying an estimated 259 homes. It also claimed the life of at least one person. Firefighting costs are still being finalized but the current estimate sits a nearly $40-million.
No cause has been pinpointed on how either fire began. But with conditions now safe enough to start the investigation, the search for clues is underway. One of the usual suspects in forest fires is lightning. It is nature’s original match. There is nothing quite like it. It lands at a speed of 140,000 mph with a temperature of 54,000 degrees.
Several years of dry conditions have resulted in a Forest Service nightmare. Light snowpacks, a huge buildup of ready-to-burn undergrowth and a population boom into the mountains by people fleeing cities, have converged to create a nearly perfect recipe for disaster. Add in high temperatures, low humidity and lightning and the table is set.
“It is an unsustainable model,” says architect and land use expert Niccolo Casewit. “It is in bad taste to blame the victim,” Casewit says, “but building in these places is not much different than building in a floodplain.”
Red zones, areas defined as most prone to wildfires, have attracted hundreds of thousands of new residents. State demographers say that one in four Colorado homes now sits in a red zone.
Living in a red zone, however, doesn’t automatically equate with becoming a fire victim. “If you’re a person inclined to live in these kinds of areas, it’s very beneficial to know the kinds of things that can happen,” says Dr. Douglas Rideout, Director of Colorado State University’s Western Forest Fire Research Center.
Think long and hard about making your mountain residence safe, including using the right construction materials and factoring in what Rideout calls “a defensible space”— a fire perimeter around the dwelling.
That information, however, may be too late for the state’s next high country fire victims. And Rideout says, with the same hot, dry conditions that allowed Waldo Canyon and High Park to burn, there are likely to be more fires, all potentially as dangerous as those that scorched Colorado.
Weather conditions have made the entire western U.S. prime for ignition. The same dry weather patterns that have plagued Colorado are common across the Rocky Mountain states. The Forest Service has counted 35 significant forest fires now burning across the West.
Despite a zero-tolerance, state mandated no-fire edict in the high country, lightning strikes will still occur and will certainly be the ignition point for fires through the rest of the summer. The only thing state forestry officials can do is hope that these fires burn themselves out before replicating Waldo Canyon and High Park.
While the fires have changed lives and perhaps lifestyles, there is still the aftermath of High Park and Waldo Canyon that concerns forest officials and others. With forest and vegetation now nothing more than ash and silhouette, weather cycles continue to pose serious threats.
“Monsoon rains may result in a serious problem for land and wildlife,” says Marilyn McBirney, curator of the Pueblo Zoo. If rains aren’t too heavy, “seeds have a chance to get started.” But mudslides, which would not come as a surprise, are also a serious concern.
“They can create a whole other problem,” she says. “Aquatic wildlife are a pretty significant concern; also the animals that depend on the streams.” McBirney says everything in the high country is linked and while fires are a natural part of the cycle, they can and do create temporary imbalances. Biologists will probably revisit the aftermath of the Yellowstone fire of a generation ago to gauge the future of Waldo Canyon and High Park.
While the Colorado fires were witnessed on a 24/7 basis on television screens around the world, state tourism officials don’t anticipate a serious impact on their $10-billion industry. They point out that while more than 100,000 acres of forest did burn, 23 million acres of pristine Colorado forests remain untouched.
With two of the state’s worst natural disasters now appearing under control, residents of Waldo Canyon and High Park must figure out their next move, which is not an uncomplicated matter. To rebuild or retreat is the question they must ask themselves.
“Sentimentality is understandable,” says Denver real estate broker, Judy White. But hard choices are cut and dry, she says. Some former residents will be hit hard because they undervalued their home’s contents. “Hazard insurance is going to be a problem, too.”
And, even if they do make the choice to rebuild in the same spot where their lives changed in an instant, Casewit says, weather cycles aren’t going to change. There will always be careless campers, arsonists and the one thing that has been around the longest — lightning.