Megan Sheehan is a web writer and content producer for The Nature Conservancy's Global Digital Group. She shared the following experience for our Wildfire Journal:
The wildfires in the Western United States have made national and international news. But it’s hard to feel, see and understand the real pain that people and wildlife are experiencing from the news media alone.
I’m aware of the issues surrounding these "mega fires," as they’ve been dubbed: climate change, choked forests after years of fire suppression, historic high temperatures in all of the regions affected – and how all of these factors are turning our nation’s beautiful and expansive forests into matchsticks.
But this issue-awareness didn’t prepare me for what I saw when my family and I traveled to Colorado the last week of June – and what we saw was mild in comparison to the highly degraded areas of the state.
We arrived in Estes Park, Colorado, with full knowledge of the fires. We had plans to camp in Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time as a family, and figured we were far enough from the major fires at that time.
With a four-year-old and a two-year-old, we were excited about our family’s virgin camping experience: Rocky Mountain National Park is gorgeous, iconic, and vast. We’d light a campfire, hike, stare at the Milky Way, and bask in an unadulterated 24 hours.
But when we arrived, we were informed that all campfires were banned in the Park.
The fires were too close, too devastating, and too destructive – no chances were being taken.
It was sad, and it hit close to home. We can’t recreate the way we want, I thought, but there are people who have no home to go home to. There are vast swaths of trees that no longer exist, and animals with no habitat. It was shocking – was it that bad? Is it that close? We decided not to stay the night at the campground but instead hiked there in the morning. As we were driving out of the Park boundary and into Estes Park the next day, we witnessed a forest fire being suppressed right by the side of the road. “Fire truck!!” screamed our oldest, and we slowly drove by more than 22 homes that were destroyed, and the charred, black remains of the mountainside. Clearly it was bad, and it was close.
The next day we headed to Boulder, confident that we would be safe from the threat of fire. But as the second day peaked, an electric storm ignited one of the matchstick trees in Flagstaff, on the west side of the Flatirons Mountains that border the city. We could see the fire, glowing and red, from our Boulder cabin. The smoke choked the sky and emergency response crews closed the trails at the base of the mountains. Fire was all around us, permeating the state of Colorado.
Seeing the fires first-hand was like stepping out of a bubble. It had affected us personally, and although the effect was clearly miniscule compared to the lives that have been upended, it gave us a valuable opportunity to experience the News instead of watching it. It is real. It’s not good. Will these forests recover?
That’s the question that many are asking. As we drove home, keenly aware that we were moving farther away from the fires, we asked ourselves the same thing.
July 13, 2012
Learn how The Nature Conservancy uses controlled burns to benefit people, water, and wildlife.
Learn about the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program, which reduces the risk of megafires.