Wildfire Journal 2012

'Four Fires in Four Weeks'

"It has been difficult to focus on anything else but the fire ... It’s about loss of lives, life’s loves, and livelihoods."

- Heather Knight

Heather Knight started as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy in 1994. Today she serves as our Laramie Foothill Project Director in Colorado, and helps manage the Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon Ranch Preserve. The preserve sits to the East of Fort Collins, Colorado. Heather offers her view of the High Park Wildfire for our Wildfire Journal:


Four fires, four weeks, and today is only the first day of summer. Our eyes from Phantom Canyon have been trained on the horizon.

It started with the Hewlett Fire, was followed by Stuart Hole, and then next in quick succession were the Little South, and then the High Park Fire. Then came word of the Flagstaff and Waldo Canyon fires. Several people have died; more than 100,000 acres and 600 structures have burned in these fires alone, with a $50 million price tag in firefighting costs.

We have quickly learned the lingo … spot fires, red flag warnings, containment lines, heavy tankers, SEATs, pre-alerts. We monitor weather forecasts, text fire updates and links to satellite infrared imagery, and check our reverse 911 sign-up.

It has been difficult to focus on anything else but the fire. It’s about calls of concern, condolences, and offers of care. It’s about loss of lives, life’s loves, and livelihoods.

We have been surrounded by it. Low thick misty layers lay deep in the river bottom and rise as the day warms. Columns of white, grey, copper, and black, build and billow, then sheer off and disperse hundreds of miles. At night the ridges and clouds are back lit with fiery red. It looks and feels so close, but thankfully the Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon Preserve in northern Colorado has not been in any immediate threat (but see the postscript below). Looming large on the horizon it is hard to explain with assuredness to visitors that is it a long way off - yet.

How We Got Here

It is volatile mix of circumstances that have brought us to this place in time:

  • More than a century of suppressing natural fires
  • A history of timber harvest and grazing that has resulted in forests all of a certain age
  • Forests that are overly dense and stressed by competition for resources
  • Severe, extended drought conditions following a period of good growing season years; and
  • Residential development that has fingered out into the rural county areas, embedded within the trees, followed along the ridgelines and canyons.

All this adds up to a forest of increasingly poor health and higher likelihood of extreme and large scale events. We all said that one day the northern Front Range would likely have such an event, it was only a matter of time ...

Under such circumstances it is hard to think about fire as anything but bad. But fire was historically a natural and healthy part of these forests – a force of restoration and renewal. Just as we from time to time must clean up our yards and gardens-- remove the old dead material, thin the heavy mulch, prepare the soil, and then sow the new seeds -- so too does nature. In forests, nature’s landscaping tools include disease and insects, wind, and fire. If one tool is not enough, then it employs a combination…we are seeing that combination.

We have been slowly learning that human actions can affect nature’s work. If it weren’t for the threat of fire to people and property, we might have allowed fire to continue naturally occurring in the forest. Instead, we interrupted that cycle and some of the consequences have been both extreme and tragic. The fires that do occur are more likely to be hotter, larger and more damaging than they would have been historically and they pose a tremendous threat to both people and nature.

In the Ponderosa pine forests of northern Larimer County, fire should burn in a mosaic with some of the area experiencing low severity burns that skim quickly over a rocky lightly grassed slope. In small areas the fire may get hot and intense, where a dense stand of large trees with thick undergrowth just below a ridgeline flames up to torch the tree tops. But largely the fire would be of moderate intensity, staying on the surface and consuming the dead and down material and thinning the litter, making way for new growth.

A Different Future

I know it is hard to talk during these smoky times of any goodness in fire. Our hearts are naturally engaged with the needs of friends and neighbors. But our hopes also lie with the future. And if we want to see a different future for our forests – and for our communities – we must find a way to return fire to a more natural, healing role in these landscapes.

Perhaps the High Park Fire will offer us an opportunity to learn, to ask the science community to help us understand both the human impacts and landscape effects of this fire. Perhaps they can show us the good and the bad in this fire and we can learn how we can help to steward our forests to reduce the potential harmful effects to humans and increase the positive effects for the environment.

In the meantime we watch the horizon and ponder the immenseness of nature and are reminded that “nature bats last."

P.S. While this blog was being produced “it” happened. A lightning strike resulted in a small grass fire off the NE corner of Halligan Reservoir. A neighbor and our Phantom Canyon preserve staff were some of the first to see it. Resources were quickly on site, including one single engine air tanker, two helicopters, the local fire district and two USFS hotshot crews.

The Conservancy’s Phantom Preserve staff was ready to leave if needed. All was quickly under control. For safety, preserve staff shut down the preserve and stayed in town. All clear the morning after. Then the following afternoon we received 0.01 inches of rain and another 0.3 inches the following night. Not million dollar slow soaking rain and not a torrential downpour that can cause erosion, but rain with a purpose. Although the hot, dry, windy conditions continue we know that in days green grass and shrub shoots will freshly crown the fire’s black and the process of renewal will begin. Preserve staff are staying in touch and vigilant as the afternoon thunderheads fill our skies and signal more fiery possibilities. 


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