This year’s burn bans are crucial in parched Colorado

Another dry summer sparks memories of past wildfires — and worries for the future.

 

Jane Parnell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is the author of the mountaineering memoir, “Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies,” recently published by University of Oklahoma Press.

During the summer of 2002, my parents and I escaped the smoky air of Estes Park, Colorado, by spending much of our vacation in front of the TV. It had been the worst fire season in Colorado history — a harbinger of even worse seasons to come.

This summer, I’ve steeled myself for a repeat not only of 2002, but also of 2012 and 2013, when Colorado Springs was threatened with annihilation. By the end of the ski season this year, the snowpack in the northern Colorado Rockies, where I live, barely exceeded two-thirds of the historical average.

The Lake Christine Fire near Basalt, Colorado, burned more than 6,000 acres in July.

Friends in Durango and other southern Colorado mountain towns were especially worried. Their snowpack lagged behind ours by a third. An early spring melted the snow quickly, exposing already vulnerable forests to a battering of sunlight and wind. In April, Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, like other public officials throughout the West, warned citizens to prepare for the possibility of another record-breaking wildfire season. By early June, Durango was enveloped in smoke from the 416 Fire in the San Juan National Forest. At one point, 1,000 people had to evacuate, and the national forest, the second-biggest one in the state, was closed. Tourism tanked.

The 2002 Hayman Fire started in the Tarryall Mountains, miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. When my elderly parents and I braved the unpredictable elements to meet in Estes, gateway to the park, we had to don facemasks whenever we left the condo. The fires that summer burned so hot, pyrocumulus clouds formed, racing toward Denver at 50 mph. Residents and visitors were assaulted by the equivalent of two-to-five years’ worth of industrial emissions. Clouds 20,000 feet high drifted into Wyoming and Nebraska.

Stuck in the condo for much of our stay, my parents and I were humbled by the courage of the firefighters we watched on TV. Shoveling and hosing to beat back flames advancing on private property, they were risking their lives after decades of misguided public policy that had equated all wildfires with Armageddon rather than a rejuvenating force of nature.

For eons, lightning-sparked fires thinned the forests, creating the conditions for seedlings to take root. With fewer fires to regulate their density and health, trees have multiplied, packed in so tightly that they extinguish sunlight. All the ills of overpopulation — from disease and insect infestations to overgrown underbrush — have accumulated. Choked forests manufacture the fuel for a tossed cigarette, lightning strike or muffler spark to ignite; the warmer temperatures and extreme droughts and winds of climate change fan the flames, lengthening the fire season and stretching the resources needed to combat it to the breaking point.

This year, I hope I don’t have to see elk herds straggling down the highway single file, tangled mats of hair dangling from their skeletal bodies, as I did in Estes Park that catastrophic summer. With no food up high, the survivors had to scavenge wherever they could, in lawns and gardens already denuded by their more fortunate predecessors.

The midsummer monsoon will have to come soon for the outlook to improve for 2018, especially in the southern Colorado Rockies, where fires already blaze. But even if we have a wet summer, we will be seeing more frequent and more extreme wildfires in the future as a result of climate change. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been printing fliers to post on campers’ windshields. A mile and a half up a nearby Forest Service road, visitors park their vehicles in every turnout, sometimes for weeks, ignoring the flashing signs in town and on the highway that inform them of the fire ban.

When conditions escalate to highly alarming, as they already have in many places this summer, these bans extend to charcoal grilling and the use of power tools outside. My fliers communicate the basic rules and the consequences for breaking them. Vacationers who fail to extinguish their campfires on public land can face as much as $750 in fines and up to six months in jail.

Public land managers throughout the West are also trying to educate the public about the dangers of target shooting in dry conditions. The number of wildfires started by this increasingly popular outdoor activity has skyrocketed in recent years. The two shooters who started the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt, Colorado, on July 3 face felony charges. Three homes burned. Hundreds more were endangered the first week of the fire.

All it takes, as the 416 Fire has already demonstrated, is one spark in parched grass.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.