We face a new generation of “super fires” in overgrown, sick “gasoline forests.” Everything has changed except residents’ understanding of their options should wildfire plow unexpectedly into their mountain cul-de-sac.
“Civilians,” or non-wildland firefighters, have died this year – previously unheard of in the region, while hundreds of homes have burned, in one case, as fire plowed into a major Colorado city.
Wildfire is bigger and deadlier than just two decades ago, a convergence of timber mismanagement; heavy urbanization in this, the third-most populated nation and one of just eight fueling half of all growth on the planet; and prolonged drought, or perhaps, global warming converting forests to desert, as 1990s computer models at Los Alamos showed might happen.
In 1996, the Dome was the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. At 16,400 acres, it pales beside new trophy fires, New Mexico’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex at a staggering 300,000 acres; last summer’s Wallow Fire in Arizona and New Mexico at 500,000 acres; and the Las Conchas, near Los Alamos, at 156,000 acres. It burned as much in four hours, 43,000 acres, as the May 2000 Cerro Grande, the first super fire, burned in a week, blowing through a major recreation area on a Sunday. Yet, no one died.
That changed on Colorado’s deadly North Park, High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.
The stage began to be set for super fires with the arrival of railroads and hundreds of thousands of livestock (including my ancestors’ cattle) in the 1880s. They grazed away grasses that fueled frequent – every few years – ground or “housekeeping” fires. Such fires historically removed millions of sprouting trees in mid-elevation forests, while leaving the fire-resistant mature trees. Then, in 1912, came aggressive fire suppression, the end to the last hope of saving forests that over the next decades became thicker and sicker, sometimes thousands of trees per acre where fewer than 100 once grew.
As drought continues – or as the Southwest returns to drier norms common before 1955 – and, inevitably, sparks hit forests primed to explode, fires of sizes and intensity that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s are becoming common. If residents are not removing unneeded fuels from their property, they put others at risk, but mountain residents must also plan better for the worst.
At Oakland, Calif., in 1991, residents fleeing a wildfire died in flames on a narrow road. Colorado residents have died in their homes this year. Did any of them give thought, in advance, to a firefighter priority, “escape routes,” the shortest or least-timbered ways out? How far was each from a grocery store parking lot, a playground, a golf course, a large intersection?
Safety zones – that which firefighters are trained to always have in mind – are rather ponderously defined based on flame height, winds and the potential for radiant heat to harm. But as I learned when shown one – a small parking lot next to a two-lane highway to which firefighters moved during the first blowup of the Cerro Grande Fire – fire must have fuels to burn, and safety zones are simply clearings without fuels.
A telling YouTube video shows firefighters on a California blowup – them, their vehicles and supplies – safe as fire looms over them, helicopters furiously dropping retardant. But the firefighters, far from worried, are happily snapping pictures.
The best option, if wildfire approaches, is an evacuation entirely out of harm’s way. But it is time, rather than people dying in their homes, for residents to learn to plan last-ditch options – emergency escape routes and safety zones – should they be trapped by wildfire.
Kathleene Parker lived in Los Alamos and reported on, among other topics, fire and timber issues, including freelance for the Albuquerque Journal, for a number of years.