Barker: Like so many others, Colorado fire is no natural disaster

June 17, 2013 

Damage from the wildfire just outside Colorado Springs.


It's deja vu all over again - and again - in the American West.

Last year, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs destroyed 345 homes. Twelve miles away, the count on Sunday in the Black Forest Fire was nearly 500 homes destroyed and two people dead.

Our first response should be to help the victims of this disaster pick themselves up, bury their dead and go on. We should reach out to help them like we do the victims of tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

But make no mistake. These are not natural disasters. Our actions led to them, even as the changing climate has made matters worse.

In Idaho, the most destructive fire last year wasn't the Trinity Ridge, the Halstead or the Mustang Complex, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres of mostly backcountry. It was the 1,024-acre Charlotte Fire, which burned 66 homes and 29 outbuildings on the edge of Pocatello.

It's the same place I covered a fire in 1987, and many residents were just as unprepared in 2012 as I found them then.

The Black Forest area in Colorado is described as a Ponderosa pine forest much like the forests around us. Historically, these forests would burn at intervals of about 30 years. But we put those fires out for 100 years, allowing the understory to grow - a contributing factor.

We moved in homes with cedar shake roofs, wood decks and other hazards. Despite 20 years of ever-growing fires, we have not acted to make these homes and communities safe.

This is not an issue in the forest. This is an issue in the communities. We need people to build or remodel homes to be defensible if they live next to wildlands, forest or range. Then we need to make some policy decisions about evacuation. How many people could have saved their homes before the fire slowly burned across their lawns and started on their decks?

How much of this Colorado fire was like the Waldo Fire last year, where most of the homes lost were ignited by other homes?

We spend so much to fight fires to save homes that people and communities don't protect themselves. Then we blame the government for having the forests, which evolved with fire, that the people want to live near.

This story is not new to Idaho Statesman readers. We have been going through this since 1989. The Eighth Street Fire in 1996, the Oregon Trail Fire in 2008, and the Karney Fire last year all heightened our awareness.

The Karney Fire is worth noting because Wilderness Ranch, the community that was threatened, was one of the first in the nation to become what is known as a Firewise Community.

Its homeowners association worked with noted fire scientist Jack Cohen in 2002 on a plan to make individual homes safer. When the Karney Fire struck, there were some tense days, but the community was saved because of that plan.

Cohen has studied the behavior of dozens of fires across the nation since the 1990s, and he sees the same behavior every time. Most homes are ignited by flying embers thrown as far as a mile and a half ahead of a crown fire, or when the ground fire reaches brush and trees within 100 feet of buildings.

The homes themselves burn especially hot, but the trees nearby are often left with their green canopies intact. Look at the aerial photos of the Black Forest Fire and you see this.

Cohen's research has been confirmed time and time again - that fires can be fought within the communities, and that raging fires on public lands don't need to be stopped in the wilderness to protect private property. But when you get hundreds of homes threatened, there just aren't enough firefighters to save them all.

"We have the ability to be compatible with fire," Cohen told me in 2008. "But we mostly choose not to be. Our expectations, desires and perceptions are inconsistent with the natural reality."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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