Midway through my postdoctoral experience, we had a smolder- smoke but no flames- in the computer room while the boss was away. I remember that the boss dropped everything to return immediately, and I remember that when he called from the airport, some rat bastard gave the phone to me. I conveyed everything that I knew, everything I guessed, and I’m sure I made up some information until the boss reached saturation or until his plane left. That experience taught me that information is a currency, just like money is. I also learned that when you are at a distance from a crisis, that one of the ways people try to cope is to learn everything you can.
Those of us in the DC office are having the same experience with the wildfires currently raging in Colorado. I’ve been drafting briefing memos twice daily on the fires, and since each outlet seems to do major updates only once a day, I’m never satisfied with how much information I have available. I have, however, had a chance to reflect on all of the data that I have been processing.
My email Inbox is a swath of red these days. I have learned to color code my emails for rapid identification such as light blue for meetings, yellow for phone calls, orange for the farm bill, and dark blue for water-related material. I have generally reserved red for the most urgent information, but it also seems quite appropriate for forest fire communications. I am part of a staff team divided between DC and multiple locations in Colorado who contributes to monitoring the situation, and we regularly loop in each other on updates from various sources. That amounts to dozens of red-coded emails each day.
I have also gained a better understanding of the scope of operations required to cope with a forest fire, so I shall tell the story as I understand it.
When a fire starts, the person running the show is known as the incident commander, and that person is the lead based on where the fire starts. For example in Colorado this week, one fire started on National Park Service land and one started on Bureau of Land Management Land, so the incident commanders for those fires were from those two federal agencies. The Black Forest Fire, which is burning just north of Colorado Springs, was on private land, so the incident commander was the El Paso County Sheriff (and I’ve certainly learned to spell sheriff this week!) As the situation gets more complex, there are support teams that come on line to help out, and eventually, the Black Forest fire was complex enough that one of the federal Type I teams, trained to manage the most complicated incidents, arrived to assume control.
What makes an incident complex? It’s not just fighting the fire, which all by itself requires coordination of ground crews, smoke jumpers, and air support. The Black Forest fire itself grew to 16,000 acres, so an area even larger than that needed to be evacuated. Those people need to be notified, sometimes through knocking on doors, and those areas need to be secured from looting. Shelters need to be set up for people who need a place to stay, and that information needs to be communicated. I hadn’t even thought about the need to provide shelter for large animals, but the Elbert County Fairgrounds is not only sheltering horses and cattle, but also sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas. At this point, nearly 40,000 people have been evacuated from approximately 20,000 homes.
The situation in Colorado is complex also for the size of the Black Forest fire as well as because they are fighting multiple fires in the region simultaneously. The state is at a preparedness level of 3 right now. The maximum is 5, which means that all resources are being actively utilized. So more than half of all the state’s resources are already being used, which means that the reserves used for fresh start fires are thinly spread over the remainder of the area. The state continues to have red flag warnings indicating that weather conditions are favorable for ignition and expansion of fires.
The first responders for a fire are always local forces such as fire, police, and sheriff departments. If the incident commander decides these resources are not sufficient, then he (yes, at this point, I think it’s still almost always he) puts in an order for more support. Neighboring areas are tapped first, then state, and then regional resources as needed. There is also a centralized resource management system so that someone coordinates the needs of all the teams working active incidents. As one example of interagency multilevel cooperation, even though none of the fires is on Forest Service land, the Forest Service has the best access to the really large air tankers that drop the red fire suppressant you see in the fancy photos, so there are several Forest Service air tankers present to help where needed in the state. The Forest Service also works with the Department of Defense, who provides workhorse C-130 planes to be outfitted with MAFFS- Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, which allow these planes to be used to drop suppressant as well. (I call C-130 planes workhorses because NOAA uses them to fly their atmospheric sampling missions and those planes are also used to fly back and forth to Antarctica. Of all the planes in the world, that’s the only one I’ve learned this year!)
Colorado also has a wealth of military resources. The Governor activated the state’s National Guard early in the week, and there is a combination of Guard, active, and reserve military personnel and equipment who all contribute including the air bases, the Air Force Academy, and Fort Carson. Everyone is contributing what they can. As of this morning, there were over 1,000 people directly working the fire, which doesn’t even count the people who staff the shelters or probably the information and security functions.
One of the saddest jobs has to be working on the list of homes that are lost. Black Forest has been a very hot fire with intense burns, so the last estimate that I saw was that over 470 homes have been lost. To give some perspective, last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 348 homes, and that was previously the most devastating fire in the history of the state. To give even more perspective, the Waldo Canyon fire was a mere 10 miles from the current Black Forest fire, so this is the second summer that Colorado Springs residents are dealing with the stress and uncertainty of a major fire.
Sometimes information can be overwhelming, and there have definitely been times this past week when I have simply walked away from my computer to take a step back from it all. It is in my nature, though, to find something positive to carry away with me. In the magnitude of this crisis, I appreciate the courage of everyone who is coping. I used to look at a fire that was 5% contained and scoff thinking that it was insignificant. I now look and see that 5% is more than nothing. That first bit is called setting an anchor, and it is the starting point for additional fire lines for containment. I think of everyone from the individual fire fighters to the incident commander, who each must feel that they can’t fight the whole fire at once, but they can make a start and anchor their efforts to do a little more. I also think of the people who have lost their homes and who each take those small steps to put their lives back together. With the courage to take those small steps, the fire will eventually be beaten back, and lives and homes can be rebuilt.