Part I of II
Huge swaths of Colorado are on fire, but the weather is finally working with and not against firefighters. It is providing hoped and prayed for moments of relief allowing them to slowly extinguish the flames that have swallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of high country timber. One of the fires, the Pine Gulch fire, has now become the biggest fire in Colorado history with, so far, more than 220 square miles of forest incinerated.
Firefighters are also still working on dousing the Grizzly Creek fire, Cameron Peak fire and the Williams Fork fire. The combined acreage burned by this trio of fires totals more than 67,000 acres or slightly more than 106 square miles of forest. There are also a number of smaller burns in other parts of the state but mostmeasuring less than a thousand acres.
“We’re getting some breaks now,” said Mike Morgan, Director of Colorado’s Division of Fire Control. “Higher humidity, lower temperatures and less wind,” said Morgan, are all factors in slowing the rate of burn allowing firefighters, on the ground and in the air, to gain control. The biggest break has been no loss of life and minimal loss of property, though there have been forced evacuations.
High temperatures, often pushing triple digits, have blanketed much of Colorado for a good part of August. On the ground, with flames incinerating anything that will burn, it is much hotter. As an example, paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Forest fires, fueled by not only timber but all varieties of vegetation, can burn as hot as 1,472 degrees.
Firefighters have been dispatched to several areas of Colorado, but most of the resources are focused on the four large burns. Together the fires have consumed more than 300 square miles of high country terrain. The two biggest, Pine Gulchand Grizzly Creek, are now each more than 70 percent contained.
The Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs forced a several-day closure of I-70, Colorado’s main east-west corridor. The shutdown forced traffic to detour on back country roads adding up to six hours to the trip for many drivers. The interstate is now reopened but the Colorado Department of Transportation is warning that a heavy rain could cause mudslides that may, once again, close the road.
Forest fires are a seasonal and sometimes deadly reality in Colorado and the West. In July 1994, fourteen firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs when a lightning strike ignited a sudden fire trapping the group with no escape. “Wind and lightning,” said Morgan, “are a constant wild card…you can be overwhelmed.”
While fires are now burning away from population centers, they’re never far away in a state like Colorado where wilderness is often just minutes away, including places like Jefferson County just to the west of Denver. Between U.S. Highway 285 and I-70, Jefferson County has hundreds of square miles of forest, all potential tinder in the right conditions. Right now, the focus is away from the county but never that far away.
“The conditions are unforgiving. Temperatures are hot. The air is filled with smoke and dust, and the 14-16 hour days are back-breaking,” said Jeffco Commissioner Leslie Dahlkemper. This fire season, she said, “Firefighters are facing another enemy, too – a deadly pandemic.” Covid-19 protocols are now a variable built intothe way firefighters deploy, eat and rest.
New technology and tools to battle fire has also added to each new season of forest fires. Colorado is now employing the newest aerial technology to fight the fires, said Morgan. It’s expensive but, said Morgan, it’s also an investment. The state operates with a fleet of aircraft, some of which are equipped with infrared sensors to locate hot spots. This year the state has added an air tanker that can drop up to 800 gallons of fire retardant or water from the air.
“Colorado is leading the country in early detection by use of technology,” said Morgan. The infrared red cameras, said Morgan, and heat-sensing technology are invaluable. The cameras allow spotters “to see through smoke.” The technology, he said, has helped locate 450 fires, many of which have been extinguished before they gained the strength to grow into potential conflagrations. “We find a single tree lighting strike; we get the longitude and latitude and send that information to local agencies.” Local municipalities will send out a crew and the fire is doused. “It never gets a name,” said Morgan.
The combination of fires, including those burning in other western states, has turned Colorado’s normally blue summertime skies into a pallid shade of gray. The smoke has also created potential health problems for the elderly and those with other health considerations, including asthma and heart conditions.
While firefighters might be working day and night well away from population centers, the fraternity, which now includes scores of women, keeps a watchful eye. “It’s a national family,” said Pueblo Fire Chief Barbara Huber. “It builds camaraderie when you have those kinds of challenges.” Huber is a 23-year-firefighting veteran and first woman to head southern Colorado’s largest fire department.
In next week’s edition of La Voz Bilingue, we will examine the long term health effects of fire in Colorado, the role climate change may play in the future of high country fire and the men and women who risk their lives saving lives and property, including the multi-million dollar mansions that may have once been unique but are now ubiquitous all along I-70.