USA — As gathering smoke from the Black Forest fire grew into a massive column north of Colorado Springs on Tuesday afternoon after the fire exploded, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa couldn’t shake the feeling of déja vu.
Just short of a year before, Colorado Springs was traumatized when the Waldo Canyon fire blew out of the forest and into a subdivision west of downtown on June 26, destroying 346 homes and killing two people. The Waldo Canyon fire held the title of being the most destructive in state history.
Until Black Forest.
“I just kept thinking to myself, this cannot be happening to our community twice in one year,” Maketa said.
It’s incomprehensible that a wildfire would occur at almost exactly the same time of year, on the outskirts of the same city, being fought by the same people.
But this is the new normal, said Frederick “Skip” Smith, Colorado State University professor and head of the Warner College of Natural Resources’ Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.
More people are moving into forested areas that are becoming increasingly overgrown. And persistent drought conditions have made the likelihood of destructive wildfires a near certainty, Smith said. All it takes is a spark.
“You have the perfect storm for these sorts of events that are catastrophic and will have these huge consequences,” said Smith, who is proposing a new center for the university that would look for solutions.
Things must change, he said, and they will.
“We’re not going to live with it,” Smith said. “The costs are too great. The amount of money that we spend for fire suppression is huge and not sustainable. And continuing to put young people at risk to fight fires is not something we want to do.”
Insurance damage estimates from last year’s Waldo Canyon and High Park fires totaled nearly $450 million, making it the most expensive wildfire season in state history. The U.S. Forest
Service spent more than $56 million fighting those two fires. It is unclear what the costs of the Black Forest fire will be.
Already, it is the most destructive in state history, leveling 483 homes as of Saturday afternoon and killing two people who were trying to escape.
These fires are significant not because of their sizes but where they have occurred.
As of Saturday, the Black Forest fire was 15,500 acres but in a heavily wooded forest where 13,000 people live.
Waldo Canyon was 18,247 acres, but most of that fire chewed through forest until it blew into the Mountain Shadows subdivision one afternoon, destroying hundreds of homes over 1,516 acres.
“Fire is a natural part of the environment, but the ones that get attention are the ones that burn close to urban areas,” said Ed Delgado, meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “The Waldo Canyon fire wasn’t a big fire by the standards last year. We had a 600,000-acre fire in southeast Oregon and a 300,000-acre fire not far from there last year. But they were grass fires in the wilderness and high desert and only affected a small number of people.”
The Hayman fire in 2002, still Colorado’s largest at 138,114 acres, burned mostly in forest land. It destroyed 133 structures, but most of those were secondary mountain homes.
Smith from CSU said there has been a change. More people are populating wildland areas, which he says is a byproduct of the
Internet and people able to telecommute and not have to live so close to their work.
“It’s beautiful, convenient and easy to do,” he said.
The Forest Service says some 32 percent of U.S. housing units and a tenth of all land with housing are in the wildland-urban interface the area in which homes are built near or in areas vulnerable to wildland fire. And that number is expect to increase.
“There is going to have to be some rethinking of how we approach living in these risky environments,” Smith said. “It’s going to mean we are going to have to do a better job of designing these communities and making them defensible in the face of the certainty that these fires are going to happen.”
Smith said that will include building homes that don’t ignite as easily, having infrastructure for firefighters, escape routes for homeowners, mitigation requirements and revising building codes.
In Colorado, the number of homes in the wildfire “red zone” increased to 556,000 in 2010 from 464,000 in 2000, according to an analysis by Burt Hubbard of the I-News Network.
The Colorado State Forest Service even created an interactive Web feature for people to find out whether their addresses are at risk.
Growth in the wildland-urban interface is projected to increase by 300 percent in the next two decades, said Joe Duda, the state’s interim forester.
“We are working diligently to get the message out and help people understand,” Duda said. “It’s a personal responsibility, and it’s a community issue. Will you allow new construction and new development without requiring maintenance of the forest?”
A fire in the densely wooded Black Forest has long been feared, said Colorado state district forester Larry Long.
“The biggest problem down there are the trees are growing too close together,” he said. “People didn’t move there to cut down trees. The density is three to four times what it should be.”
But fire suppression and lack of thinning has made the forest too thick. Long said ideally the trees should be 15 to 20 feet apart.
“They need to take about half of the trees out and then come back and take another third out,” Long said. “It would be a stark contrast to what it is now. But that is a healthy forest. It looks very nice. It gets parklike.”
Gary and Freddie Stone moved from California to Black Forest six years ago, building their dream home for a life amid the ponderosa pines. Last year’s Waldo Canyon fire was a wake-up call, they said. They got all of their important items together in case they needed a quick escape and did “everything they could to mitigate” near the home.
As of Friday night, their home was still standing, Freddie said. But her husband’s shop with antique cars did not survive.
“Every tree is black. The ground is black. It looks like a war zone,” she said after being escorted back into the neighborhood. “Our neighbors to the north lost their home. And neighbors to the south lost their home. I think the firemen did everything they could to save the houses. My heart goes out to them.”
Chris Schenck has had to live through it twice.
Last year, his family’s home in the Parkside neighborhood of Mountain Shadows was destroyed. For nine months he lived with his mother and stepfather north of Black Forest before moving back to a newly constructed house just two months ago.
On Wednesday, his mother and stepfather were evacuated and are living with him in Mountain Shadows.
“It’s déj vu flipped around,” he said. “It’s been rough. They are glued to the TV, trying to find out about their house. To be honest with you, there are a lot of dead trees and stuff that doesn’t get cleaned up. This area is so dry.”
Chuck Fowler, who is rebuilding a home on Majestic Drive that was incinerated in the Waldo Canyon fire, said he cannot believe the fires are back.
“I am sitting here just completing my own personal property scope of loss a year after Waldo Canyon,” he said. “I am doing that in the context of looking out my patio door to a sky full of smoke. It’s kind of tough on the psyche.”
Fowler is going to sell his house. He doesn’t want to return to Mountain Shadows. He feels deep empathy for those to the north.
“It makes me sick,” he said. “Thinking what lays ahead for these people is hard. And as a community, to have to go through this again. … We’re probably getting pretty good at something we really don’t want to be doing. That is the great irony here.”
An aerial view shows damage from the east edge of the Black Forest fire Thursday. The most destructive fire in Colorado history had burned 483 homes as of Saturday. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)