When I started working in a Colorado Senate office last October, one of my very first projects was to write the first draft of a letter to President Obama urging him to fund a program that would help the state recover from its most devastating wildfire season in Colorado’s history in summer 2012. I look back on that time when I knew so little about forest fires, other than that they were a bad thing, and I can appreciate how much I’ve learned since then. I’m putting that knowledge and experience to good use since the 2013 forest fire season arrived very abruptly in my adopted state this week.
For months now, I have regularly checked on the US Drought Monitor and on the National Interagency Fire Center websites, but although Colorado has continued to suffer from its second year of drought, the state seemed to have dodged wildfires so far, with all the action focused in California and New Mexico. That all changed on Monday when temperatures soared into the 90’s, winds gusted, and the relative humidity dropped below 10%. From my visit to the Rocky Mountain Research Station, I knew that it’s the relative humidity drop that is the most important indicator that fires may expand rapidly.
Between Monday and Tuesday, at least five fires started in the state. One is on federal land nowhere near structures or communities, so it is being left to burn. A second was contained quickly. The other three are the problems. I learned long ago that when you are far away from an emergency, having a steady stream of information makes you feel less helpless. Knowing that the Senator was going to want to stay on top of the situation in the state, I started tracking down reliable sources of information and monitoring those data constantly.
At the top of the scary list is the Black Forest Fire, which is burning on the northern end of Colorado Springs. On Tuesday morning, the fire was a mere 15 acres, but by Wednesday morning, it had expanded to 8,000 acres and estimates were that 80-100 homes were lost. Thousands of people were under mandatory or pre-evacuation orders. I ended up following the Twitter feed from the sheriff’s department to follow some of the developments, so I learned that one evacuation site in a church had to be relocated due to heavy smoke. Taking care of large animals such as horses and llamas was also an issue; the county fairgrounds opened up as a large animal shelter after a local ranch had reached their capacity.
The Black Forest Fire highlights the newest problem with wildfires, and that is the wildland-urban interface, known as the WUI, and pronounced “Woo-ey.” Homes and communities built adjacent to or within forest are at particular risk from wildfire damage, especially if the land around the structures hasn’t been cleared to form defensible space and if roofs are not specifically made from fire-proof materials. Structures in the WUI are the most challenging to defend since they tend to be spread out and have heavy fuel loads in the area. I suspect that the WUI is well-represented in the evacuation areas.
On the East Coast, we are familiar with FEMA’s response to disasters such as hurricanes and tornados, but FEMA also has the ability to do Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) to help with forest fires. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper requested FMAGS for the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires on Tuesday, and they had been granted by Tuesday night.
The Royal Gorge fire is burning mostly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land unlike the Black Forest Fire, which is on private land. Thus I was able to track the Royal Gorge fire through the Inciweb.org website all day, since that site seems to focus on federally managed crises. The Royal Gorge fire jumped to 3,800 acres by Wednesday morning, but it was not threatening structures or communities, so it was not causing quite the consternation of the Black Forest Fire.
The third fire, the Big Meadow Fire, started from a lightning strike in Rocky Mountain National Park on Monday afternoon. The original 2-3 acre fire had blossomed to 300-400 acres by Wednesday morning, and strong wind gusts kept smoke jumpers and water-carrying helicopters grounded all day Tuesday. That area of the park has suffered from 70-90 % tree mortality because of pine beetle activity, so the fire had ample fuel for expansion. Although a number of trails were closed, there were no structures threatened here either.
Resources are stretched thin because of the multiple fire starts in such a short timeframe, but I’m impressed with the effective communications among everyone dealing with the fires. It’s also amazing to be aware of just how many groups contribute to fighting a fire. The local fire crews and the sheriffs are the front line of defense for suppression and people-management, but the Colorado Army National Guard was activated quickly to help with firefighting, with security, and with flying helicopters to drop giant buckets of water on the flames. The Forest Service in conjunction with the Department of Defense is bringing online their air tankers, and incident commanders experienced in coping with complex efforts are also brought in to manage resources. Even locals are doing their best to contribute simply by purchasing bottled water and sports drinks for the fire crews.
I just hope the weather breaks soon since today, Thursday, looks like another hot and dry day.
I can hear my father asking what resources I had open on my web browser, so here’s the list I was working from.
www.inciweb.org Federal incident update website, Royal Gorge link
www.inciweb.org Federal incident update website, Big Meadow Fire link
www.inciweb.org Federal incident update website, Colorado link watching to see if the Black Forest Fire was being added
www.nifc.gov National Interagency Fire Center- Sit (situation) reports
gacc.nifc.gov NIFC Geographic Area Coordination Centers
Coemergency.com The State of Colorado’s emergency information website
www.nps.gov/romo Rocky Mountain National Park website for updates on the Big Meadows fire
www.DenverPost.com To keep track of local reports
Twitter Following El Paso County Sheriff updates on the Black Forest Fires
I also printed out this map and kept moving it to the top of the pile of papers on my desk to keep track of the fires.