Over the past week, firefighters have attempted to contain a large fire in Colorado Springs that has forced the evacuation of roughly 35,000 people, claimed more than 350 homes and killed at least six people. President Obama recently visited the state to evaluate the damage and to promise federal aid to those affected by what is being called the worst fire in Colorado’s history.
The so-called Waldo Canyon Fire that’s raging in Colorado Springs, a city of 400,000 residents, is so vast that it can be seen from space. Westerly winds continue to blow soot and smoke from the fire across the central and eastern portions of the U.S. and as of June 29th, the fire had burned approximately 17,000 acres of timber and brush, the majority in the Pike National Forest. The fire is also among 50 wildfires being fought across the country at this time, the bulk of the fires in western states including Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.
While the cause of the fire is still being investigated by the FBI, arson does not appear likely. Instead, ideal fire conditions including wind, heat and a very dry forest, much of which is the result of mountain pine beetle damage, is the likely suspect. After all, a forest that’s full of dead limbs and kindling is more likely to ignite into flames over one that’s lush, healthy and green. The explosion of the pine beetle population has been correlated to climate change and most efforts to prevent the beetle’s advancement have been met with frustration and little success.
The Waldo Canyon Fire, while tragic, is in fact a direct result of what would occur naturally to renew the forest while potentially eradicating the mountain pine beetle entirely, thereby restoring balance and enabling the forest to regenerate. Given Colorado Springs is the second largest city in Colorado however, allowing mother nature to take control is simply not an option.
So what’s going on and why is this fire particularly violent? Craig Allen, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, breaks down the increase in severity and frequency of forest fires into three main categories: Global warming, sprawl and changing forestry practices as a result of population growth. As the Washington Post admits, “Thanks to both climate change and shifting forestry practices, humans may bear some responsibility here [to the Waldo Canyon Fire].” The article goes on to say that according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, “both the frequency of large wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased substantially in recent decades.”
The Post article also notes that while the West has experienced naturally occurring forest fires for years, these fires were typically low-intensity surface fires that cleared out underbrush and prevented forests from growing too densely. As the human population grew however, forest managers began immediately suppressing these fires in an effort to save homes and lives not realizing that by doing so, in the long-run, fires could become stronger and more deadly.
Researchers continue to try to determine a balance between the important role fire plays in this region with continued human sprawl. One method is to restrict development in highly sensitive areas. Another is to start small, controlled surface brush fires in an effort to avoid an even larger catastrophic fire down the road. Whatever the best approach, forest fires like the Waldo Canyon Fire are a naturally occurring process that will continue to exist and, looking at the data, they will only continue to increase with a warming planet.
Photo Credit: FEMA Photo Library