USA – In what has been a tame Colorado wildfire season, the lightning-sparked Decker fire burning south of Salida has reared its ugly head to produce familiar images in the past few weeks.
Soot-stained firefighters dragging tangles of branches out of the backcountry to grind up before they become kindling; exasperated residents gathered in community meetings, hanging on every word of weather forecasts out of fear the wind will change and bring fire to their doors; moments of joy and relief when evacuation orders are lifted and people finally get to go home; all are scenes seemingly lived and relived every year in the Centennial State.
Salida resident Carrie Howard wants to see aggressive fire suppression, even in the wilderness where federal policy dictates that fires sparked by natural causes like lightning should be left alone until they threaten human interests.
“I think we should put it out. There are people’s homes that are still in jeopardy,” Howard said last week. “That’s why it’s out of control right now. They had 50 people watching it burn until it blew up, then they decided to put a lot of resources on it.”
U.S. Forest Service leaders and wilderness advocates emphasize that directly attacking every wildfire with chainsaws, bulldozers and other equipment used around population centers compromises the integrity of wilderness areas where fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. In many cases, including this one, use of that kind of equipment is banned unless express approval is granted by a forest manager or higher-ranking members of the U.S. land management hierarchy.
“Suppression over the last 100 years has caused a lot of fuels to accumulate, especially in wilderness areas,” Paul Delmerico, operations section chief for the Decker fire, said last week. “If we get a lightning-caused fire, that’s Mother Nature telling us something. We’re making up for what we believe are the mistakes we’ve made in the past.”
The Sangre de Christo Wilderness, like many parts of the Rocky Mountain region, is choked with beetle kill trees, stands of deadwood that can feed fires and pose extreme overhead risks to firefighters. As a wilderness area, it has no roads to accommodate fire engines and, in this case, steep, rugged terrain, driving up the danger to crews that would be tasked with hiking in to fight it on foot. A thorough risk-reward assessment is undertaken before any firefighters are sent into such areas. No crews have been sent into the wilderness to fight the Decker fire on foot.
“We can mitigate a lot of things. One thing that it’s hard to mitigate is gravity,” Delmerico said. “Tumbling rocks, snags, trees that might fall; the wilderness has a lot of these things.”
For now, the Decker fire is still being viewed as a means to naturally clear some of the pent-up fuel in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. That strategy is being adhered to even as more than 700 people — and another 180 firefighters on their way — worked to contain the fire where it is burning near subdivisions along the Arkansas River east of the wilderness on Monday. Low humidity and high winds drove the fire to grow by another 800 acres overnight Sunday.
That doesn’t mean that if the team on the ground doesn’t feel it’s essential to use heavy equipment it won’t be allowed to. Requests are processed quickly when dealing with a large wildfire, Delmerico said.
Crews working the Decker Fire have used helicopters to dump water in places in the wilderness where they feel the fire could pose a risk to lives, property or valuable infrastructure and resources if it were to grow, incident commander Mark Giacoletto said Monday. The forest supervisor approved those efforts, he said.
As U.S. wilderness policy has shifted toward allowing fires to burn naturally, many people who live in what is known as the “wildland-urban interface” — areas where civilization butts up against protected wild areas — have come to appreciate and encourage a more hands-off approach to wildfire where appropriate, Delmerico said. The risks of living in the interface zone are frequently communicated by the Forest Service and other agencies.
Frank Comstock was allowed to return to the home he shares with his wife at the base of Methodist Mountain south of Salida last Wednesday after a week of sleeping in a trailer. He and his neighbors were evacuated in the early morning hours of Oct. 3. Fed by red-flag weather conditions, the fire defied models and grew by more than 1,600 acres that day, according to estimates shared by public information officials on Facebook. On the day he went home, Comstock said that he understood the decision to let the fire burn in the wilderness areas southeast of his home.
“It was on the other side of the mountain, so it was good. It has to be taken out of there,” Comstock said. “It’s a mess over there with all that beetle kill and fallen trees. I had no problem with that.”
Farther southeast on U.S. 50, in the community of Howard, Pamela Scrivner last week tried to calculate the damage the fire and smoke had done to her business without even coming close to her property line. Since December, she and her son Jesse Bohannon have been running the Black Bear RV Park and Resort. She estimated that after Howard was placed under a pre-evacuation order on Oct. 5, she had 20 to 25 customers cancel reservations. Meanwhile, some people staying with her, many of them older, were breathing potentially dangerous smoke.
“They let it get out of hand is what they did,” Scrivner said of officials managing the fire response.
Comstock has lived on Mount Methodist for 20 years and has never been evacuated because of wildfire before. He hopes it will be the last time.
With urbanization pushing deeper and deeper into wild areas, situations like the one playing out now in south-central Colorado are likely to become more common, said Lisa Ronald.
Ronald is the wildlands communications director at the Wilderness Institute, a center within the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation.
Science is proving that in the long-term active fire suppression techniques used in the past can damage a place’s ecology and lead to more dangerous cumulative impacts down the line, she said. From a philosophical standpoint, the hands-off approach to wildfire that has been baked into management plans for wilderness areas across the American West in recent years gets to the heart of the federal legislation that designated those areas in the first place. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as areas “untrammeled by man,” or, as Ronald rephrases it, wild and self-determined. It’s an ethos that is sure to bang into expanding human development, she said, particularly at this time in Earth’s history.
“Our climate is changing and fire is an unpredictable process. There is that level of uncertainty in dealing with any natural process,” Ronald said. “You can kind of think it as a wild animal. A bear isn’t a bear anymore if it’s tame and in a zoo. If you want to have the bear, and if you want the bear to be what a bear is, you have to live with some level of uncertainty. That gets back to this notion: Are we gardeners or are we guardians?”