Fire in the Rockies

by Bill Chameides | June 19th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments
Colorado forests
A recent, fact-finding trip to Colorado was an eye-opening experience about the problem of wildfires ravaging large parts of the South and the West.

The first of two posts.

Wildfires in Colorado: a hot, tragic, and complex issue.

The High Park Fire

On June 9, 2012, around 6 a.m., a lightning strike ignited a fire in the forest just north of the Buckhorn Guard Station west of Fort Collins, Colorado. (See area maps of the fire here, here and here and this fire progression map [pdf].)

Source: National Weather Service

Temperatures were high that day (peaking at 96 degrees Fahrenheit), relative humidity was low, in the single digits (“epic dryness,” as Incident Commander Beth Lund put it), and the winds were up. Just the recipe for a wildfire. And it certainly worked that June.

Within a day, the fire had spread to 8,000 acres. By noon on June 11, the fire had covered almost 37,000 acres [pdf]. It would take 21 days and eventually more than 2,000 firefighters working around the clock to suppress the fire, which would, at times, give rise to flames as tall as 300 feet [pdf].

Satellite Image of Colorado's High Park Fire in June 2012

The High Park fire from space, taken on June 10. (Source: NASA)

When it all was over, the High Park fire in Larimer County had torched some 87,000 acres, making it the second largest fire in the state’s history*. In all, 259 homes were destroyed, and one person was killed. The final cost of the suppression activities: ~$39 million.

The High Park fire was not only extensive; it was incredibly intense, at times spawning rapidly moving 50- to 100-foot walls of fire [pdf] with temperatures reaching, according to some residents, 2,000 degrees. (See the Denver Post’s image gallery.)

Entire trees were incinerated into charcoal. Soils were literally burned and left devoid of organic carbon. And homes were turned into ash. Even structures built with fire-resistant materials were not immune, torched from the inside out, ignited by intense radiant heat entering the home through the windows.

Trees turned to charcoal

Intense fires literally blew up trees turning them into pieces of charcoal.

Water a Huge Issue

Once the fire was finally contained on June 30, the recovery began. It is an ongoing process, and it has not been easy, especially for those who lost their homes (more on that later).

A little-appreciated but major impact of the fire was on the municipal water systems. (See also here and here [pdf].)

The fires left the forest soils covered in ash and without vegetation and hence vulnerable to erosion.

And so thunderstorms following the fire brought huge quantities of ash and sediment [pdf] into the Poudre River, temporarily turning the water black and forcing operators of a water treatment facility for the city of Fort Collins to shut off intake from the Poudre River (one of two sources of its drinking water) for three months last year.

Poudre River

The Poudre River was high and clean when we visited, but a storm blowing through the region could change all that, bringing ash and eroding soils into the river.

With each new storm, the facility’s operators must monitor the quality of their source waters and be prepared to shut down. Officials still worry that water supplies from the Poudre River might have to be interrupted again. (How Fort Collins is addressing ongoing water quality concerns.)

The Fort Collins experience is only one example. Ten years and millions of dollars after the Hayman fire [pdf], operators of the Cheesman Reservoir (which “supplies 15 percent of Denver’s water”) are still trying to figure out what to do about all the ash and sediment dumped into their facility.

Lisa Voytko, Fort Collins' water production manager

Lisa Voytko, water production manager for the city of Fort Collins, had to stop the intake of Poudre River water to one of her water treatment plants for several months last year because of the amount of ash-laden runoff and eroded sediment that had washed into the Poudre River.

The New Normal?

Sadly, the High Park fire was not an isolated event.

Something is going on, and it’s not just in Colorado. The West, along with other places, is seeing the advent of the “megafire.” Over the past decade wildfires have become more frequent, more severe, and larger, sometimes destroying tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.

And with more people living in fire-prone areas, fires have become more destructive, burning more homes and putting more people, including firefighters, in harm’s way. (You can find out if you live in a high-risk area by using Colorado State’s interactive “risk assessment” tool.)

Firefighters in Colorado are currently working to contain several fires in Colorado, including one that is being billed as the state’s “most destructive wildfire” and one that has claimed at least two lives. More on the Black Forest wildfire here and here.

A Fact-Finding Trip to Colorado

What’s going on? To try and find out, I led a team of Nicholas School faculty, staff, and board members on a three-day, fact-finding trip to Colorado last week.

We viewed fire-scorched forests from the perspective of a helicopter and on foot. We visited forests decimated by pine bark beetles and we spoke with people who represent a wide range of viewpoints, including scientists, U.S. Forest Service officials, a park ranger, water managers, businessmen, residents, a natural resources policy advisor to a U.S. senator and Norm Christensen, the founding dean of the Nicholas School and one of the world’s experts on forest fire and recovery.

In Part 2, which will be posted tomorrow, I’ll share details of what we saw, heard, and learned from these diverse voices and the evidence on the ground.


End Note

* The Hayman fire, which consumed some 138,000 acres in 2002, was the largest fire ever recorded in Colorado and the “most destructive in terms of acres burned.”

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  1. R. Shearer
    Jul 5, 2013

    There were large Colorado fires in the 1890’s that have been reported to be in the millions of acres. The cities of Cripple Creek and Ward were almost entirely destroyed. Are there definitive sources with regard to these?

    • Bill Chameides
      Bill Chameides
      Aug 2, 2013

      These are good questions. Yes, there were mega fires before the current period. And in the 19th century before we had a polity to put out wildfires, massive wildfires of millions of acres were possible.

      I suppose it is a question of frequency as well as size. I can tell you that the forest experts and fire experts we spoke to were pretty definitive in their statements that we have seen a significant increase in fire intensity and extent in the later part of the 20th century.

      Here’s an example from U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell: “On average, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago. Last year, the fires were massive in size, coinciding with increased temperatures and early snow melt in the West. … The last two decades have seen fires that are extraordinary in their size, intensity and impacts.”

  2. Sundance
    Jul 5, 2013

    Did you do any analysis on how fires today compared to fires during the 20 to 100 year mega droughts that occurred frequently in the Southwest over the 2,000 year history before today?

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