Colorado Wildfires Summer 2018

A large smokey fire burns

The Weston Pass Fire near Fairplay, CO before highway 285 was closed.

I was happily working on my computer while sitting outside on my deck and anticipating the start of the long weekend. Suddenly I was overcome by the intense smell of smoke nearby. Having studied wildfire science and worked in wildfire education, my first thought when I smell smoke is usually wildfire. I stood up, and slowly walked around my deck making observations of my surroundings. I peered through the forest around me, and up into the bluebird Colorado sky. I cocked my head and drew in another deep breath, this time with intention to fill my lungs. Ok, I could definitely smell smoke, but I didn’t see any of the typical signs of smoke near me. Perhaps someone was burning slash? hmmm….It seemed too dry and windy to be burning slash. A campfire? It was 4:00 in the afternoon on a Friday. The valley surely would be filling with locals and visitors ready to start the three day inaugural summer weekend, but it seemed a little early in the day for a campfire. I texted my son and asked him if he was aware of any wildfires in the area. He texted back: Yes. He explained a small fire was burning in a rural area not too far down the road. It was burning between us. He could see the smoke billowing into the sky. I let out a heavy sigh, followed by “Here we go.”

That was May 25th of this year, and smoke has been a part of my life nearly everyday since—more than eleven weeks now. For me personally the 2018 fire season began with that particular fire, called the 358 Fire, northeast of Durango, Colorado. The 385 Fire was started by recreational shooting on private property. Multiple fires were already burning in nearby areas including Wolf Creek Pass, Pueblo and New Mexico, however.

The 416 Fire.

One week later I was outside talking with a neighbor who came by collecting her rogue pony that had made his way to my road. It was the first full week of summer vacation for school children and I could hear, see and feel it! Kids were out in full force. As we talked I felt my phone vibrate. My son texted me a photo of an enormous plume of smoke billowing from where he was standing in downtown Durango. It was the start of another fire. This one would be called the 416 Fire. Like many fires in the west, the cause of the 416 fire is still under investigation—some people say it was caused by the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, which is one of the largest tourism draws in the area. As of this writing nothing has been confirmed.

I’m not going to go into all the unsettling details from the local summer fire season which is still in full swing (i.e. number of evacuations; cost of suppression; economic cost of lost tourism; homes that survived the fire but are now dealing with mudslides in the firescar; issues farmers and ranchers face; health issues; uninsured homes; absentee landowners; psychological effects; the bear cub whose feet were scorched…I could go on and on…) because I hope to someday read an impact report. I want data. What I do know is the local tourism economy took a hit because the viewscape and air quality were downright terrible. Incredible viewscapes and pristine blue skiesare just two great reasons people often travel to visit the southwest during any season. The Colorado Rocky Mountain region is known for fresh air, and the expansive, breathtaking, beautiful 360 degree views. But those were missing from a large part of the summer. 

I stayed up to date on the containment progress being made, watched Air Quality reports and took necessary health precautions, by limiting my time outdoors, and wearing an approved mask while I was outside. Almost daily the smoke blew east from the fires and settled in the valley where I live. Multiple mornings I woke to my deck covered in a fresh layer of grey ash. It was unavoidable. 

I’m one person in a small region of the southwest, experiencing drought and unprecedented wildfires.

I studied Fire Science as an undergrad and graduate student, I have certifications pertaining to wildfire mitigation practices, and I have worked professionally in roles educating communities about living with wildfires. But this summer was like no other I’ve experienced in the 19 years as a Colorado resident.

The Plateau Fire is still burning nearby, and smoke has been in the air for over eleven weeks now.  There is currently a plentitude of new fires on the landscape in the western regions of the continent. Is this the “new normal” everyone is talking about? Wildfire is historically a natural, normal part of the landscape and benefits the ecosystem. But it’s a very different environment now. With many more people on the landscape than a century ago. 

Intense smoke driving into the Weston Pass Fire.

This summer of wildfires has left me with a long list of questions, but those will wait for another post. For now I’ll leave you with some of my phone images of the many very impressive fires—some naturally caused, some ignited by humans, and some “still under investigation”—I experienced in Colorado this summer.

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