Smokey the Bear was pointing to red that day. Jamie Carpenter, a wildfire specialist with the City of Boulder, awoke to his pager alerting him of a fire in Boulder.
“We got to the mouth of Boulder Canyon and saw the orange glow and thought, ‘okay, this is happening,” said Carpenter.
The Sunshine Canyon fire burned 74 acres in March of 2017 after an illegal campfire spark ignited dry grass and spread across a windy ridge of ponderosa pine trees. The Sunshine Canyon fire was severe, with a thousand homes evacuated. But there was no loss of life or property, the ultimate standard of success for the firefighters.
Carpenter said the Front Range’s particular landscape would ideally burn every eight to 30 years, but things had built-up outside their historic range ahead of the Sunshine fire. That year, Colorado experienced the warmest March on record.
“Pretty remarkable fire behavior for that time of year and day,” said Carpenter, a former elite firefighter in a Hotshot crew who has been working with fire for decades.
Residents asleep in their homes near Settler’s Park awoke to teams of firetrucks, aircraft dropping retardant, and frighteningly close flames moving their direction at up to 15 feet per minute.
The evacuated residents are just a few of the more than two million Coloradans who live in the wildland-urban interface, where urban populations abut forest land and are at fire risk, even though they may enjoy a sense of security due to the paved roads that make up their perimeter. This is why Carpenter and others in the field are prioritizing community education about the serious issue of mitigation.
“There’s not a lot of incentive, and it costs a lot of money to do mitigation,” said Stefan Reinhold, Senior Forester with Boulder Parks and Open Space.
While Coloradans do get a tax deduction of up to $2,500 for certain types of fire mitigation, many city residents don’t consider the issue to be something they need to take action on, and even voice disapproval with the wildfire management teams that want to do proactive treatments, such as prescribed fires, on areas in need of thinning.
Mitigation is a complicated issue. Even though bipartisan voters across the West have said managing forests to help prevent catastrophic wildfires should be a top priority and are willing to pay more in taxes to manage fire and drought, when it comes to proactive measures like prescribed burns near homes, people aren’t always on board. Some are worried about the risks of setting their backyards ablaze, and some just don’t want to get smoked out of their ski day.
The fear of something going wrong is not unfounded. While most prescribed burns make people safer, some lead to escapes.
One famous “controlled burn” in New Mexico near the nuclear research facility Los Alamos turned into a disaster that swept across 42,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest. The incident reminds us all that fire is never really under our control.
With a fluctuating budget that comes from an array of sources, proactive protection can run into many hurdles. Carpenter noted that FEMA grants, for instance, come with a stipulation that the money can’t be used for fire activities such as prescribed burns. But other measures where contractors are involved in operations like chipping are more expensive.
Slash piles are another concern for Carpenter and Reinhold, who say that it’s been impossible to get permits to burn all of them away in a reasonable timeframe. Slash piles are piles of branches, leaves, pine needles and other debris left behind from forest management activities, and due to permitting hurdles can sometimes remain in place for decades.
One reason is that counties with a large urban area already deal with pollution from heavy traffic, which contributes to restrictions for burning permits. This March Denver reached an Air Quality Index of 154, sitting comfortably in the range considered unhealthy by the EPA. Adding smoke to an already baneful day like that is not going to happen.
As the Sunshine Canyon fire indicates, fire season is creeping into the winter months with no signs of reversing coarse.
March of 2018 saw the least number of fires since 2000, but almost 400,000 acres were burned, which is the 4th most on record.
In other words, there are only a few months left in the year where fires are not a concern. Yet another result of climate change we’ll all be adapting to in the years to come.