Climate Enhanced Mega-Fires Pose “Unacceptable Risk” to Firefighters

The trees on a ridge above Colorado Springs' Cedar Heights neighborhood go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012.

Michael Kodas / Special to Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

The trees on a ridge above Colorado Springs’ Cedar Heights neighborhood go up in flames on Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2012.

The mega-fires that burned in Colorado in 2012 and 2013, scorching tens of thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes and claiming at least five lives, were of such magnitude that they were difficult to comprehend based on any previous modeling, said Rod Moraga, a veteran of the Boulder Fire Department and now a fire management consultant.

Moraga lost his own home in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire outside Boulder, even though he had taken all prescribed precautions with defensible space and a metal roof. He was elsewhere helping save other homes when his burned.

Moraga is featured along with other firefighters in the new documentary, “Unacceptable Risk,” which looks at the significance played by climate warming in the immensity of recent fires, and the increasing dangers that those fires pose to firefighters.

“There are essentially three factors involved,” said Dan Glick, who along with Ted Wood produced the film for their Boulder-based journalism initiative, The Story Group. “More and more people are moving into the wildland-urban interface (the so-called Red Zone). These firefighters have been pretty good at putting out fires for the last hundred years, they’ve had a very aggressive policy, so in many places there’s been a buildup of fuels.

“And then we have what I’d call the wild card: the temperatures here have risen twice as fast as the global average. With those temperature increases we see all these other things, so the fire season is two months longer now than it was in the ‘70s.”

An analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News found that one in four Colorado homes is located in a fire zone. A quarter million people have moved into the state’s Red Zone in the past two decades – 100,000 of them since 2002, when wildfires raged across Colorado.

“Unacceptable Risk” was featured on Colorado State of Mind on Rocky Mountain PBS on May 29, and Glick and Moraga were on hand to discuss the film’s findings. The show is available at rmpbs.org.

“The Hayman fire (in 2002) was a great example of a fire that went far outside of what had been previously measured,” said Moraga. “There is difficulty in being able to predict what the future holds when there is nothing to base your model on.”

The 2012 fire year featured headlines calling it the state’s worst in a decade, and included the Waldo Canyon Fire in suburban Colorado Springs, where two lives and 347 homes were lost, and the High Park Fire near Fort Collins where one person died and more than 250 homes were destroyed.

Then in 2013 the Black Forest Fire erupted just north of Colorado Springs, becoming the most destructive fire in state history, burning more than 450 homes and claiming two lives. That year also saw the Royal Gorge Fire, which destroyed much of the infrastructure at the popular tourist destination, and the Big Meadow Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“We’re seeing these events that we didn’t see even 20 years ago,” said Moraga. “Fires are burning through the night instead of dying down, and they explode when the sun hits them.

“The Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park started in October, and the decision was made to let it burn (with winter weather approaching). In December, it made a three-mile run at night and burned a few structures and we had to go in there. That was big eye opener.”

Recent fire behavior calls into question the concept of defensible space, Moraga said.

Defensible space by definition calls for reducing potential fuels around your home so that firefighters can make a stand and defend your home, he said. But with these huge fires, it’s going to take more than mowing your yard and trimming a few trees.

He said the new model for protection might be “stand alone space,” in which the construction of the home makes it more impervious to fire.

The Waldo Canyon Fire provided vivid examples of the failure of the defensible space concept. Some of the blocks where homes were leveled by flame weren’t anywhere near a forest canopy, but featured suburban landscaping with the occasional decorative or big tree.

“Some of these fires are so big that we might be able to direct them or contain them but only nature can put them out,” Moraga said.

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