USA –– Climate change, prolonged drought and increased populations in wildfire-prone areas position Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West for more devastating wildfires the magnitude of the High Park Fire three months ago.
CSUs Warner College of Natural Resources sponsored a daylong symposium Monday on the fire to talk about lessons learned and the science behind Larimer Countys most destructive inferno.
Fires this year have been larger, burned hotter, been more difficult to control and burned in areas with more people and structures, said Hubbard, deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, a CSU graduate and former CSU forester.
Throw in the wind and you have a very serious problem, he said.
With more people living in the wildland urban interface, it will be up to residents and communities to work together to mitigate the danger clearing trees around homes and thinning forests, Hubbard said.
The High Park Fire, which burned in areas thick with beetle-killed trees, was driven by climate, drought and forest health conditions more than beetle-kill conditions.
Strong winds and bone-dry humidity levels helped propel the High Park Fire in three different directions and provided significant challenges for firefighters trying to predict the fires behavior, said Bill Hahnenberg, incident commander for the High Park Fire, who returned to Fort Collins for the symposium.
We had some success, but not as much as we would have liked, referring to the number of homes lost, he said. Calling the High Park Fire as complex as it gets in terms of scope and scale, Hahnenberg said he regularly told the 2,000 firefighters under his command to focus on the homes they did save.
Planning, collaboration and cooperation among local and regional resources helped responders coordinate further evacuations, set up shelters, feed and house firefighters and evacuees, get help to those who needed it and keep everyone safe, added Bill Nelson, Larimer County undersheriff.
Yet challenges persisted, including notifying people living in evacuation areas many of whom didnt have telephones or cell service getting information to the public in a timely manner, answering the question of when evacuees could go home, telling many their homes were gone, dealing with communication issues in the mountains, coordinating utilities and securing evacuated areas.
One challenge: The media and daily meetings with evacuees were helpful in getting information out, but how to tell people they lost their homes?
The sheriffs office decided to tell neighborhoods one at a time, reading a list of addresses that were destroyed. That kind of worked; it kind of didnt, Nelson said. We are still learning from that and figuring out what to do next time.
Communication between officials and the media could have been better, said CBS Northern Newsroom reporter Ty Brennan.
The fire was difficult to cover when access to it, evacuees and firefighters was largely restricted by the sheriffs office, he said. The media was asked not to show photos of homes being burned, which the media politely declined.
It would have been a disservice to not let the public see what firefighters and homeowners were dealing with, Brennan said. Several homeowners thanked him after photos shot by the Channel 4 helicopter showed burning homes. It provided information and closure they were looking for, he said.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith had made the decision to restrict access to keep the focus on the evacuees and victims of the fire, Nelson said.
Would he do anything different in the future, a member of the audience asked. I dont think we would change anything, he said. A majority of residents who spoke with us didnt want access.