Part II of II
Colorado forest fires are still devouring massive amounts of acreage, but thanks to yeoman work by firefighters, including crews from out of state, fire’s appetites for high country timber are dwindling. Also, with a big change in the forecast---a possibility of rain and snow---things are looking up. But COVID-19 has found its way to Colorado’s fire line slightly changing the game plan in this annual man versus nature struggle.
A single firefighter on the Cameron Peak blaze in Larimer County has tested positive for COVID-19 and has been taken off the fire line. An additional 25 who were in close proximity with the firefighter have been removed from the fire line for testing. Along with dangers inherent in firefighting, the virus adds one more element to the challenge.
As firefighters in the high country do their best to douse the fire, it’s taking another toll. Millions of people, up and down the west coast and all across the mountain west have been breathing in dangerous smoke that has wafted across the land. Nearly 2,300 western fires have been burning, many since mid-August. The smoke poses danger with its mixture of gases and particulates from trees, plants, building materials and more.
Denver’s National Jewish Hospital warns that the smoke can cause breathing difficulties, cough, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath. “Many people,” said NJH’s Karin Pacheco, MC, Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, “may have respiratory symptoms when breathing the smoky air.” The NJH physician says most problems will be resolved as the smoke clears. Those at greatest risk, she said in a NJH news release, are the elderly, asthmatics, heavy smokers and those with seasonal allergies.
In the worst cases, particulate matter, said Pacheco, “can also worsen cardiac disease.” Inhaled particulates can also induce blood clots and even heart attacks and strokes.” If you are in a high risk group, said Pacheco, keep medications close by, consider evacuating to a safer location or stay indoors and keep windows closed.
While smoke makes things more difficult for humans, there are also other lingering effects from a forest fire. The toxic residue of the burn---ash and tree debris- --fouls lakes, rivers, and streams. Heavy rains or melting snowfall fill waterways; currents carry the toxins downstream. The polluted water source affects both humans and wildlife who depend on the water.
Trees are the natural defense against rock and mudslides, two conditions Coloradans know well. The denuded mountainsides which stretch for miles along state roadways put highway crews on constant alert for this possibility. Forest fire also has an impact on wildlife. While fires can take an immediate toll on fleeing wildlife, the long term effect is loss of habitat on almost all animals that call the high country home. Fire is the immediate problem; environmental recovery is far more long term.
Since the middle of August, the state has had its hands full fighting not only the worst forest fire in Colorado history, Pine Creek, but three other major high country blazes. No final count on acreage has been done, but the Pine Creek fire has now accounted for more than 140,000 acres of forest at a cost of more than $28 million in personnel and equipment. The firefighting arsenal includes not only trucks and other emergency vehicles but drones, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft, including tankers.
The recent holiday weekend was literally and figuratively a series of labor days for Colorado firefighters along with volunteer firefighters from more than thirty states. Along with Pine Creek, firefighters also did battle with the Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak and Williams Fork fires. Every day firefighters face the flames they also know the dangers. In recent years, included in the danger are hundreds of thousands of acres of dead timber killed by mountain pine beetles. The dead trees are kindling for meandering and rushing fire.
“I don’t think there’s a firefighter on duty that doesn’t start their shift without thinking, ‘what am I about to do that doesn’t have a deadly potential,’” said Summit County Fire PIO and former Denver Post reporter, Steve Lipsher. It’s the firefighter culture, he said. “We lost a firefighter last December,” he said. Ken Jones, a twenty-year veteran, was killed when a roof he was on collapsed beneath him.
While a lot of rural Colorado depends on volunteers when the fire alarm rings, Summit County has a dedicated force of 61 certified firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The county stretches more than 400 square miles which necessitates the department being divided in two to serve the various towns and a handful of ski resorts including Copper Mountain, Breckenridge Arapahoe Basin. Summit County also has mutual aid agreements with its neighbors when a situation is too big to handle on its own.
The county’s growth also includes a new challenge, an immigrant workforce from countries as close as Mexico and as far away as the African continent. When fire or other emergencies hit immigrants, it creates a whole new challenge not only for emergency workers in places like Summit County but across the state in other high country towns, rural communities too, where immigrants have found work.
Just asking the basic questions, said Lipsher, like ‘where do you hurt or what medications are you on,’ can be problematic.’ “Spanish is the most dominant language but not the only one,” he said. “We have west Africans who speak French, some speak Swahili,” he said. “When we recruit, we ask potential hires, ‘what other languages do you speak.’” It’s a growing challenge and one that not only Summit County but all departments, rural and urban, are having to face.
Colorado firefighters know that when the weather warms up, fire season begins. But it’s not just Mother Nature that challenges them, said Mike Morgan, Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Control. “Most people when they think wildfire, they think of lighting,” he said. “But statistically, only about 8-10 percent of fires are started by lightning.” The rest have some human connection, “action or non-action,” Morgan said.
Because Investigators have found no indications of lightning as they’ve combed through the state’s four biggest fires, they’ve determined that three of the blazes were started by humans. But, said Morgan, that does not necessarily mean arson. While a fire may have started when someone carelessly tossed out a still-lit cigarette, their ignition could also be by an errant spark from machinery. Full investigations will begin when the last ember is out.
Since the beginning of Colorado’s late summer rash of high country fires, training and focus have paid off in no loss of life. California, where fire has also struck the high country, has not been so lucky. The state has had more than 13,000 firefighters battling more than 600 wildfires since mid-August. Seven firefighters have lost their lives.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity where Colorado’s fires are burning will make a job that’s never easy, a bit easier. Also, rain and snow are forecast beginning late Monday night and through the next several days. But the job won’t be done, said Morgan, a one-time volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Rifle, until the last ember is out, and every fighter is accounted for. Then and only then, can they call it a day.