The Waldo Canyon Fire

Yes, this posting is the morning of the 29th, but the latest update I’ve seen for the progressive map of the Waldo Canyon Fire is as of June 26th. The fire is still growing, though certainly not at the rate of that disastrous day. At its eastern edge, the fire entered the City of Colorado Springs and even required partial evacuation of the Air Force Academy.

In a bit of Jungian synchronicity (or what the Liberal Ironist likes to call “a coincidence”), I happened to pick up an old National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room.  I read an informative cover article about wildfires.  Yes, it said, global warming contributes to Western droughts and warmer summer days, increasing the risk of fires breaking out.  But this, the article argued, represents a marginal contribution to the risk and scope of wildfires.  An entirely-different order of human activity has had a greater and more-counterintuitive impact on the probability and intensity of wildfires, in the Rocky Mountain West but also elsewhere.

Fighting all wildfires virtually ensures that the ones that we fail to prevent become enormous.

As is turns out, conventional fire department doctrine for dealing with wildfires was to fight every wildfire everywhere.  The benefits of this vigorous policy of fire defense were obvious: preventing the loss of trees for forestry; preserving beautiful wildlands available for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping; and of course protecting the steadily-growing stock of suburban homes on the edge of the wilderness.  This strategy was ultimately unsustainable, as it has simply led to the rapid expansion of dry kindling for future fires.  Our Western forests are now far, far more-lush than they used to be when the occasional wildfires were able to burn unopposed.  As a consequence the new fires burn much hotter and spread much farther, eventually putting so much heat and ash into the air that they can produce their own low-pressure microclimates as they burn.

Oh, right, the coincidence: A few days after I read this article (this would be April 9, 2012) I heard of a forest fire back on Long Island.  (Long Island, New York is better-known as the location of Brooklyn, Queens and to a lesser extent Nassau County, but if one continues east from Nassau County Long Island’s character shifts from urban to more-suburban; if one passes the halfway point going east–say, Exit 64 on the Long Island Expressway–the environs gradually shift from suburban to “exurban” and rural.)  This forest fire occurred in the Long Island Pine Barrens, a State wilderness area of 102,500 acres.  1,100 acres in the northern part of this area burned-out, just north of the Peconic River near an abandoned military-industrial production facility undergoing redevelopment.  Suddenly I had an event–not a large one by forest fire standards, but an event nonetheless–towards which I could direct my curiosity.  When I drove out to the burned-out area of the Pine Barrens in the 1st week of June, I could still smell the charcoal.  There isn’t much to see without entering the forest, but drive along 1 particularly-remote road and you can even tell that the forest around you has been gutted when traveling at night.

With that personal recollection finished, I’d like to shift focus to a fire that is still raging in Colorado.  The Waldo Canyon Fire is already 1 of the worst disasters–and officially the most-destructive fire–in the Centennial State’s history.  As of Wednesday 35,000 people were evacuated from northwestern Colorado Springs and its adjacent suburbs, including about 2,100 military and civilian residents of the U.S. Air Force Academy.  On Wednesday, this fire abruptly doubled its burn acreage, apparently having destroyed at least 18,500 acres of wooded and suburban land by 9:30 pm Mountain time Wednesday night.  Thursday reports were somewhat less-grim, clarifying that “only” about 16,750 acres had been burned and that the fire was now 15% contained–but that it was still burning.  The 1st and thus far only death from the fire was also confirmed yesterday, though that still reflects a high degree of organization considering tens of thousands had to be evacuated in advance of a fire that still threatens Colorado’s 2nd-largest city.  The cool air and moisture of the night means that the hours before dawn are a favored time to fight a wildfire, so the critical next few hours may give us a sense of how much time area firefighters–and their significant Federal assistance–will need to suppress this fire.  I’ve been following the story of this particular fire because a good friend used to live in that part of Colorado Springs.  A few days ago, she posted a picture of a nearby neighborhood turned to ash on Facebook.

The Waldo Canyon Fire enters the City of Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo by Gaylon Wampler (not my friend).

As I previously explained in declining to post on Japan’s truly devastating Sendai earthquake and tsunami last year, the Liberal Ironist is about politics, not just any event in the news; so why am I talking about a wildfire?  Of all natural disasters, no other seems to pose the sort of regulatory problem posed by forest fires.  Years of forest management for the purpose of cyclical logging, the maintenance of wilderness habitats, and the regular fighting of fires that might threaten Western towns and suburbs has gradually produced tinderbox conditions through millions of acres of the Rocky Mountain West.  The Liberal Ironist has no insight to offer other than the pessimistic suspicion that wildfires are simply a fact of life that you will have to deal with if you like in or near a forest that can dry-out in the summer heat.  Some people might aver that others choose to live in flood plains, or known tornado corridors, or in hurricane risk zones, or on fault lines or under the shadows of volcanoes; why shouldn’t people be able to live wherever they choose where wildfires are concerned?  The Liberal Ironist certainly sympathizes, but with 1 caveat.

Another perspective of the Waldo Canyon Fire entering northwestern Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo.

A more-sustainable long-term fire control strategy might advise occasional burns through stretches of our Western National Forests, simply in the interest of clearing-out the kindling that will otherwise eventually feed the rapidly-spreading and little-understood wildfire still menacing northwestern Colorado Springs.  After all, if allowing smaller fires to burn themselves out (to a point) could stunt a fire that could otherwise menace tens of thousands of homes (!) in a metropolitan area, that is something we should seriously consider.   The problem is, there are houses and private lands scattered throughout the wilderness; how could we decline to help those who live further afield?  How could we even decline to protect their property?  For that matter, who would be liable if the National Forestry Service and local fire departments see fit to let nature take its course while the rural folk are episodically exposed to a disaster due to a policy choice?

The images of burned-out neighborhoods in northwestern Colorado Springs are disturbing; it might take a moment to recognize just what you’re looking at, but you can see row after row of houses that are completely gone, reduced to a pile of ash.  Hundreds of homeowners and their families have lost almost all of their possessions.  We have witnessed more-deadly and more-costly disasters in aggregate, but the destruction a large fire brings to the property of those affected is total.  We certainly cannot allow people to fall into such a calamity by choice.

This would suggest that the “do no harm” course of action is to fight almost all of the fires–after all, the undisputed role of government is protecting people, right?  But again, 1 day all those trees you’ve saved are going to burn anyway, just as those rural homes are going to burn, because fires happen.  You can’t anticipate a lightning strike, or even an arsonist.  And if we let the trees and the foliage pile-on unobstructed, then as now in Waldo Canyon, the fires will be huge and hot.  We’ve got to find some way to thin-out the trees in those Western forests, or this problem will get worse.

Former President George W. Bush had offered the “Healthy Forests” initiative in 2003, in which logging companies would participate in the removal of excessive undergrowth and dead wood; skepticism prevailed among environmentalists over whether logging companies could be trusted to take this job seriously, and to spare old-growth trees while clearing brush.  W.’s policy doesn’t seem to have been very effective, considering the size of the Western wildfires that still break out year after year.  But we’ve got to do something, either very-proactive or less-proactive, to clear all that kindling from the forest floor.  Years of treating forest fires as manageable problems in isolation have made them enormous and chronic.

Only from these “after” pictures can the full scope of the destruction caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire be appreciated. As of this writing, 346 homes are confirmed to have been destroyed thus far by the fire; as you can see here, they were destroyed utterly. Photo by John Wark.

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