The West is on fire. More than a half dozen fires are burning across Colorado, and they are hardly worse than those in Utah and New Mexico. Colorado Springs declared an emergency situation Saturday, qualifying them for federal aid, while the Fort Collins fire expanded to more than 80,000 acres this weekend. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed already, and more seem to be set for the same fate in the near future. Conditions across the West are hot, dry and windy, and show little inclination to change.

Topography, climate and fuel are the three primary components that drive wildfires. Fires are more likely to climb steep hillsides than shallow ones, and in climates like much of the American West that are dominated by arid and semi-arid forests, the lack of moisture allows many fires to spread quickly and unpredictably. On top of all this, nearly a century of fire suppression has created crowded forests ripe for burning. With this much fuel, fires can rip through forests much hotter than they would have otherwise, thereby damaging an ecosystem designed to benefit from such events.

Firefighters recognize three types of fuels in a forest – surface, which is composed of grasses, shrubs and other low-lying plants; ladder, composed of mid-level tree branches and fallen trees that allow a fire to climb vertically; and crown, which are the highest branches of the trees that form the forest canopy. When surface and ladder fuels are allowed to build up, the possibility that a fire will leap into the canopy and combust into a major fire is greatly increased. Once in the canopy, the fires are much more difficult to manage, and generally cause greater harm than surface fires.

Prevention has become a major part of firefighting. Thinning forests is one of the most widely-used techniques, as it eliminates overgrown surface and ladder fuels. If done properly, and if the fires stay within control, natural fires through thinned forest are healthy components of the ecosystem. Trees like Ponderosa Pines have thick jackets of bark that protect them from all but the hottest fires, and some seeds even require fire in order to take root. Indeed, countless other benefits are derived from fires in natural conditions. Firebreaks are commonly implemented, as well. In these, certain key areas, often near the wildland-urban interface, are cleared of trees in order to protect structures or slow burning. This is often done on ridges or near the perimeters of towns. An oft-used but controversial tactic is controlled burning, in which fire crews will burn areas of forest in order to prevent natural fires from spreading as quickly through the same areas. These areas work as a type of firebreak during big wildfires, slowing the flames and reducing the heat. In the best of circumstances, this allows firefighters the opportunity to take control over the flames.

But the greatest knowledge comes from knowing that fires are unpredictable. They can traverse massive tracts of land in mere minutes, choking off the area for hundreds of square miles with thick smoke and ash. The fires in Southern California in the fall of 2010 sent plumes of smoke across the Pacific Ocean large enough to be seen from space. Several computer programs work to compile outrageous amounts of information about terrain, ecology, weather, human structures and countless other variables to try to predict where and how fires will burn. The sheer size of the American West and other fire-prone areas like southeast Australia means that even large controlled burns and forest thinning has little effect on the really big fires. To combat this problem, scientists have derived certain principles from wildfires that allow them to undertake the most effective fire prevention tactics possible. A 2003 study by the US Forest Service concluded that:

“Evidence from natural fire patterns that have fragmented fuels across landscapes suggests that mosaic patterns can limit the growth of large fires… Model simulations of landscape fire behavior indicate that the spatial arrangement of treatments greatly influences the amount of area that needs to be treated. Strategic placement of treatments… creates landscape fuel patterns that can be expected to slow fire growth and modify behavior while minimizing the amount of treated area required.”

But even these are no guarantee in the midst of one of nature’s most powerful forces.

Right now the West is on fire on a scale similar to the epic 2002 season, when three of Colorado’s largest fires decimated the landscape, and even forced the Hardrock 100 to cancel the race. A dry winter and abnormally warm spring has leveled against us the fury of fire in dry, hot and windy conditions. Combine this with the fact that millions more people live in the West than even twenty years ago, and the danger to humans and infrastructure is appalling. Firefighters now recognize that fire is healthy and necessary to forest ecosystems, but the number of people living in the West means more fires have to be fought to save homes, and conditions are now such that many natural fires become too big and too hot to aid the forests. Even more appalling is the dollar amounts being spent on these fires – big fires easily cost tens of millions of dollars to combat, up astronomically over the past half-century, while fires continue to increase in size and number. The cracks in our system are beginning to show.

And as I write this on my front lawn in Silverton, Colorado, on an evening cool enough for a jacket, watching the last of the day’s sunlight play against the rocky peak of the Sultan, I’m acutely aware of the danger to these mountains. In the immediate future, my favorite race may be in jeopardy, but the long-term prospect is even more fearful. These magnificent mountains are, in part, so wonderful because they are clothed in thick layers of forest that provide shelter to innumerable plants and animals that breathe life with their presence. To see these destroyed would be to lose a fundamental part of my favorite place in the world. I hope to be able to continue to enjoy the dappled sunlight of a summer morning while I run through the mountains.

There are 30 comments

    1. Chris P.


      The closest active fires to Silverton are the Weber fire to the west of Durango and the Little Sand fire to the northeast of Durango. Both of those fires are a pretty good distance from Silverton and the Hardrock course, but have been sending smoke throughout much of the local area depending on wind directions. By my estimate, the Little Sand fire is approximately 12 miles straight line distance from the nearest section of the Hardrock course (Pole Creek area) and would have to cross the divide in order to reach that area.

      That said, everything is so dry in that area, coupled with huge amounts of beetle kill in the Weminuche and La Garita wilderness areas that more fires in that area are certainly a possibility.

      I agree with the sentiments that it's pretty scary having so many fires so close to residences right now. My sister evacuated from Colorado Springs and is living with me as of yesterday, which wouldn't be so bad except that she brought her cat with her.

  1. Richard

    I love being and running in the American West, especially the forested Coastal Range, the Sierras, and the Rockies. I really love the San Juans! Having vacationed with my family a bunch of times, during every season, in Durango and points north… then having had the priviledge of running Hardrock (I do have the slowest finishing time of all time!… I used to tell my friends in Hawaii, a race that beautiful shouldn't be rushed), I got to know a little about not only the incredible physical environment, but also the wonderful, resilient, adventuresome people of the region. Thank you Dakota for your thoughtful and informative wildfire piece. It is a great reminder of this ecosystem's dynamic nature, and the need for us to be appropriately dynamic in it. Stewardship is complicated. Thanks Byron for "irunfar"!

  2. Tom Caughlan

    Hard to watch some of my favorite trails in CO Springs, and now Boulder go up in flames. It really is a tinderbox on the front range right now with winds that seem to be changing direction each day at high speed. Its one thing to see a national forest on fire and think of it as a natural and healthy phenomenon, and quite another to turn on the news and see entire neighborhoods on fire in the foothills. I wonder if this will influence zoning in the future for residential building in metro areas, kind of like the green zone areas in Boulder County around the city but further up into the mountains?

    Thanks for the peice Dakota. These places won't look the same again in my lifetime.

  3. Matt P

    And a whole summer to go…Maybe living in Seattle with the dry season nearly upon us but still dealing with last gasp efforts of mother nature to soak the trails isn't so bad after all.

  4. Steve Pero

    Great write-up, Dakota…living in the Jemez Mountains in Northern NM, we deal with the threat of fire all the time. Last year Deb and I and all my friends from Los Alamos were either evacuated or threatened with evacuation due to the 150,000+ acre Las Conchas fire (it came within a mile of our deck before getting under control).

    We all left for Camp Hardrock early not knowing if we'd have homes when we returned.

    This week Deb and I are backing up our computers, making arrangements for the animals and will be bringing any important documents with us. I told Deb if our house burns, we're moving back to NH where the water drips from the trees.

    See you soon…wishing the best of luck to those living with fire now.

  5. Vlad

    I hope that this will not be considered as spamming, but there is an excellent blog about wild land fires with a lot of detailed and "behind the scene" information about the ongoing fires … http://wildfiretoday.com/

    We had our great deal of misfortune last year with the Las Conchas fire (150000 acres burned) which decimated what ever was left after the devastating Cerro Grande fire from 2000 … so I think we all know here how you guys in

  6. CJ

    Thanks for the post Dakota. My wife and I received a mandatory evacuation notice yesterday evening as we're on the west side of Colo Springs. It's truly amazing to see how quickly a fire can explode when winds pick up. Yesterday morning officials thought they had a pretty good handle on things with over 5000 acres burned thus far. This morning, we're now up to 15,000 acres burned, including many houses. We desperately need rain throughout the whole state. Let's all pray for that

  7. Tim

    Will there be a report on the High Mountain Pine Beetle? There are is also the stupidy of Yahoo's who start some of these fires. Was just in Silverton last week doing and got out as the air was becoming hazy from the Pagosa Springs Fire.

  8. Dennis Blair

    I am a personal trainer in Fort Collins, and due to all these fires, I have been having a hard time with scheduling workouts for my clients. The horrible air quality has not been worth endangering my clients' health.

  9. Walter

    Can't wait for the next book report…. No mention of the Pine Beetle? The forests of Colorado and the west have been decimated by the Pine Beetle leaving the state ripe for fire. When you add the dry weather it is the perfect storm. My heart goes out to those affected.

      1. Anonymous

        Why not? It's kind of funny how he counters his sarcasm. If you're going to try to write a smart piece why not include the most obvious long term fire concern in Colorado. You can't drive through the state without being overwhelmed by the Pine Beetle devastation. This article reminds me of a book report for Forestry 101. It reads like he is trying way to hard. Just my opinion, since you asked.

  10. Mike Place

    Still trying to figure out how in the world we're even considering allowing fireworks to be set off for the 4th of July in so many dry areas out west. We're just *asking* for trouble.

    It's just madness.

    1. Steve Pero

      I read in the Silverton Standard last week that the Silverton fireworks are going to be cancelled. We'll miss that beautiful display, but we'll get to keep out San Jaun forest!

  11. Andy Mc Breen


    Thank You for Your insight with the South Western Fire situation. I live in Phoenix, AZ. Although, We do not have natural kindling in the desert, As You know there are at least Four Regional forests 1 and 1/2 to Three hours North, East and West of Phoenix that are presently off limits to campers and fires. The Zane Grey course in the Tonto national forest is off limits due to drought and an increased bear population. The bears are searching for man made food because their natural fishing opportunities do not exsist.

  12. KF

    The fire situation in Colorado and across the country is sickening, of course, but Mr. Jones's display of writing prowess here is just plain sick. Nice work, Mr. Jones. I really appreciate your sophisticated use of logical connectors.

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