The summer of 2018 in Durango will go down as a summer of fire and smoke.
There are many lessons to learn from the devastating pattern of drought, wildfire and debris we are enduring, but one of the first lessons began over a century ago in 1910.
Five years earlier, in 1905, my hero, President Theodore Roosevelt, created the U.S. Forest Service. Under Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Forest Service, forest reserves became national forests. But Western politicians, prodded by cattle and sheep ranchers, deeply resented enforced grazing fees and the inability of ranchers to homestead on land that had been withdrawn for forests to be permanently protected. With Teddy out of office in 1909, politicians schemed to dismantle the U.S. Forest Service he had proudly created for conservation. Then came The Big Burn.
The 1910 fire consumed huge parts of Idaho and Montana. It threatened farms, ranches and cities and grew as large as the state of Connecticut. Smoke from The Big Burn drifted across North America to obscure ocean shipping channels in Liverpool, England. Ocean liners could not find the harbor or the docks.
“To the enemies of the Forest Service, the fire was a chance to kill the crusade of conservation,” writes Timothy Egan in his book “The Big Burn.” Instead, the bravery and heroism of the first generation of forest rangers solidified public support for national forests. “Barely 10 months after the fire, Congress doubled the money in the Forest Service budget for roads and trails, giving the rangers what they had begged for in previous years,” Egan explains.
HHHSo what is the first lesson of the 416 Fire? We needed the Type I tactical team that masterfully took charge. Public land wildfires require a federal response. Those rural counties and politicians that routinely complain about the U.S. Forest Service or advocate unrealistic ideas like turning federal land into state land had better take note. The 416 Fire grew to 54,129 acres at a cost of $32 million. Which Colorado county or state office would want to pick up that tab?
And what about those counties that argue about turning Forest Service roads into county roads? If a fire starts on a county road, are those county’s taxpayers liable for firefighting costs? As Durangoans, let’s not just thank the firefighters and first responders. Let’s thank the U.S. Forest Service itself for its skilled management teams, its public relations officers, its helicopter and fixed-wing pilots, its hot-shot crews and so many others. At its peak, fighting the 416 Fire took 1,100 firefighters.
A major wildfire disaster requires a firm, fast, federal response, and we had one thanks to the management team at the San Juan National Forest whose goal was to protect human lives and private property. They succeeded.
“We were watching the indices and watching the drought. We had people ready in position and prepared. We set things up in advance so we could react quickly,” said Jerran Flinders, San Juan National Forest fire officer.
“In 15 minutes, we were on that fire,” San Juan National Forest Public Information Officer Gretchen Fitzgerald said.
Knowing the drought conditions, the forest management team already had 140 firefighters, including hot-shot crews and tankers, in place before June 1. They opened the fire air-tanker base two weeks early.
“We were talking about this in December 2017. We knew something could go big any day – driven by the drought conditions we were in,” Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak said.
HHHSo if lesson No. 1 is to thank the federal government, which protects our public lands, lesson No. 2 is to prepare in advance for landscape-level wildfires.
Over the decades, the Forest Service itself has learned some hard lessons. Beginning in 1935, the policy was to put out every fire by 10 a.m. the day after it started. The 10 a.m. rule resulted in widespread fire suppression. Firefighters died. Crews put out so many 20th-century fires that in certain areas we now have too many trees in the forest. The natural pattern of a diverse forest mosaic of differently aged trees and shrubs was replaced by large tree stands subject to disease and catastrophic mega-fires.
So lesson No. 3 is that fire is a natural part of a high country ecosystem. Like a reset button on a computer, wildfire has an important ecological reset function. We need to learn to live with wildfire, and here in La Plata County, we are doing so. Friends and neighbors in Falls Creek and Hermosa performed serious fire mitigation. They cleared their properties of small trees, dead pine branches and clumps of dry grass and moved woodpiles away from houses and garages. They became “firewise,” and it made the difference.
“When the 416 Fire began, we were so grateful that we had done the difficult work, year after year, to mitigate around our homes and to cultivate a healthy, resilient forest,” said Paulette Church of Falls Creek. “Our work is credited with saving homes and, even more importantly, making a safer work environment for our courageous, passionate and exhausted firefighters. By mitigating to develop defensible space around homes, our work allowed firefighters the time needed to defend our neighborhood with water-filled ‘pumpkins,’ hand lines, hoses and sprinklers. They used back burns beginning as close as 30 feet from some homes to create the black area needed to remove fuel and prevent an uncontrolled fire from coming down from the cliffs above.”
Church added: “By educating our community and coming together for challenging and fun work days, the culture of valuing mitigation and pride in reaching shared goals strengthened relationships and built a culture of collaboration. We create jobs for loggers and contractors.”
Lesson No. 4 is to mitigate fire danger in advance. Lesson No. 5 is to collaborate with other community groups and to have excellent emergency communication. The Type I team with the 416 Fire brought in 22 public information officers. We saw their work at grocery stores, on sandwich boards and many other places, including the Durango Community Recreation Center. People wanted updates every hour, especially with the closure of U.S. Highway 550, and they generally got them.
“We’ve gone from a fire hose of information to just a small drip,” Janowiak said. “In retrospect, perhaps we should have kept some of those fire information officers longer. Residents still have many questions, especially about debris flows. What you are seeing cross the highway happens with more force within the Hermosa drainage.”
HHHLesson No. 6 is about fire behavior. The 416 Fire was a fuel-driven fire. Southwest winds pushed it to the northeast. It grew wherever the fuels were available on south-facing, drier slopes. But something else happened that very few people experienced.
“The smoke plume created shade and stalled the fire south of Purgatory where there were some greener fuels and aspens,” Fitzgerald said.
Janowiak experienced the difference: “I drove through shade from the huge plume. There was no smoke on the ground, yet the temperature dropped 10 degrees. You could feel the difference.”
The final lesson will be ongoing, and that lesson is how the blackened, ash-filled landscape will heal. A Burned Area Emergency Response team has visited for an assessment. They believe that the mosaic pattern of the fire has provided an adequate seed source, so there are no present plans for forest rehabilitation or aerial reseeding.
“A week after the fire, baby aspens, strawberries and other forbs sprouted to stabilize the soil,” Fitzgerald said.
Debris flows cannot be stopped, and they are difficult to channel or move without doing damage to either public or private property. Though some residents want the San Juan National Forest to control the roiling rivers of stones, trees and mud that set up like concrete, forest officials say the flows can’t be stopped.
The Hermosa area will probably be closed until spring. We’re all breathing more easily with less smoke and no evacuations. But drought is a wild card, and in a world of human-caused climate change, hotter, drier summers are inevitable in the Southwest.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].