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
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • 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...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 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...