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|February 19- 25, 2009
Back to Letters
It could happen here
by Pamela White
It starts with something completely random — wind. A gust catches a cable line, blows it into a power line, and the resulting sparks set the dry prairie grass on fire. The wind fans the small flames into a blaze, pushing them east across a parched landscape, even lifting them and carrying them through the air as far as 100 yards.
By the time the Jan. 7 Olde Stage fire is out, it will have destroyed a home and three large outbuildings. Together with the nearby Neva Road fire, which was started at roughly the same time and in the same manner, it will have burned about 3,000 acres.
Eventually the wind died out, bringing a bit of snow in its wake, both of which helped firefighters contain and put out the blazes. Who knows how much worse the fires would have been had the wind kept blowing?
One month to the day after the Neva Road and Olde Stage fires burned, a swarm of bushfires rushed through Victoria, Australia, incinerating entire towns, leaving thousands homeless, wounding hundreds, and claiming the lives of at least 201 people.
Although some of the fires appear to have been started by arson, drought, overly dense forests and temperatures as high as 120 degrees played a role, too. And then there was the wind. It caught flames and carried them aloft, so that the fires seemed to leap over themselves, spreading so quickly that, in far too many cases, people couldn’t get out of the way. Families were told they had two hours to pack their belongings and flee only to find themselves overcome by flames in a matter of minutes.
As investigators, firefighters and other emergency personnel sort through the debris, they report finding the charred remains of parents who’d cast themselves on top of their children in a hopeless attempt to protect them. Police say many of the bodies are burned beyond recognition, and in some cases it isn’t possible to tell whether the remains are those of a human or an animal. Wildlife and livestock deaths are predicted to be in the millions.
The Victoria bushfires consumed about 1,200 square miles of town and forest — an area that could easily swallow all 741 square miles of Boulder County with room to spare.
Could what happened in Victoria happen here on Colorado’s Front Range?
“Our county could see a catastrophic event. It’s possible, particularly with the pine beetle kill,” says Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “With all the right conditions it could be absolutely catastrophic. We could have a terrible event.”
Most of the elements that made Victoria’s bushfires so horrendous and difficult to contain are present here in Colorado — drought, overly dense forest and high heat, with temps that have in the past reached into the 100s. And, of course, wind.
Our level of dryness depends on how much snow we get in the winter, how much rain falls in the spring when plants are growing and how much has fallen recently. (Though some people think a wet spring helps prevent summer fires, lots of rain in the spring can increase the risk of fire by adding to the amount of brush and grass available later as fuel. If the spring is wet and the summer is dry, the potential for a high fuel load is very real.)
As for overgrown forest, decades of fire suppression have resulted in unnaturally dense forests where disease — and flames — are able to spread in ways they wouldn’t if fire had been allowed to manage the landscape. Ponderosa pines, the predominant tree in our foothills, are very fire resistant; the duff they create beneath their branches is not. Before human beings began to interfere, frequent natural fires thinned out the young and dead trees, and burned off the duff, creating a forest that’s nothing like the one we see today.
The fires that catch in our foothills these days tend to burn more fiercely than the natural fires of 150 years ago because of the added fuel. That increases the potential for a much more dangerous canopy fire, where the older, taller trees ignite and the flames spread not just along the forest floor, but high up in the trees, as well.
Of course, unlike Australia, Colorado doesn’t have dry deciduous forests with gum trees and eucalyptus trees, the oils of which are naturally flammable and helped to fuel the inferno. Further, we have more natural and man-made barriers in place here that don’t exist in Australia, according to Pelle.
“The thing that you have to throw into the mix that makes [fire] absolutely uncontainable is the wind,” Pelle says.
The same wind-driven phenomenon that made the Australian bushfires travel so quickly was seen at the Olde Stage fire, he says.
Firefighters had hoped to stop the eastward spread of the blaze at Highway 36, but the wind didn’t cooperate.
“That fire jumped US-36 in some places by 100 yards,” he says. “The wind is a goofy thing. With dry grass on a windy enough day with the right conditions, the wind can push the fire through grass on top of snow. It’s just nuts. The wind is a crazy thing, and it absolutely rules everything when it’s in charge.”
To further complicate matters, the county’s firefighting capability — indeed, the state’s firefighting resources — are limited. Unlike some western states, such as California, Colorado does not make fire preparedness a budgetary priority and has few resources it can bring to bear in a major blaze. Most are on contract for the summer and unavailable during the winter. As a result, most of our firefighting resources are locally based and funded.
“The fire we had the other day used all of our resources,” Pelle says. “We didn’t have anything left on the bench really, so to speak.
Had there been another fire in another part of the county, we would have been in real trouble. And that’s a potential that exists today.”
Neighboring counties are reluctant to loan out their firefighters and equipment because they face the same fire danger and would find themselves unprotected if their resources were far from home.
So what are we to do if we want to avoid a catastrophe like the one that has ravaged so many lives in Australia?
According to Pelle, we’re already doing some things right. Whereas Australian emergency planners are only now talking about the need for a system that enables them to call people — landlines and cell phones — in case of an emergency, Boulder County already has a reverse 911 system for landlines and is working toward a system that would enable officials to reach both cell phones and voice-over Internet phone systems. The voice-over IP industry has fought emergency planners by not wanting to pay 911 surcharges, Pelle says, but is finally coming around.
“They figured out how to route 911 calls to the closest safety answering point,” he says. “But the industry hasn’t figured out how to reverse that process and how to launch a call through the 911 system backwards through the Internet.”
With cell phones, Pelle says the problem is that phone numbers and area codes move with people. Someone with a 303 area code might be at college in another state, whereas some residents here have cell phones with area codes from outside Colorado.
They’re working on a concept that would enable people to opt into an emergency calling system by registering their cell phone numbers, but the details still require some work.
“If all of these households register their cell phone, their husband’s cell phone, both of their kids and their dog sitter, all of a sudden that’s become 50,000 phone calls,” Pelle explains. “At 11,000, the calls [made during the Olde Stage and Neva Road fires] overwhelmed our system. The calls started trickling out because the phone system in that rural area was overwhelmed anyway, and then we had some lines go down.”
While the county works on adapting its emergency-notification plan to current technology, the issue of our forests still stands. County and city crews work long hours during the summer to thin the forest and to educate those who live in the mountains about how to prepare their property to survive a major fire. Most of the time, landowners cooperate, building homes out of fire-resistant materials and felling trees to create a defensible barrier around their homes. It’s not just an issue of protecting their own property, but of helping the county to protect other people’s lives and property, as well.
“When people mitigate around their homes it means that two guys and a small engine can go in and light a backfire around the home and eliminate all the fuels and eliminate all the fire danger and be gone in a half an hour,” Pelle says. “It takes two guys and a small engine to do that, whereas it takes several big engines and a full-size crew of a dozen people or more to fight a house fire. So it’s a huge manpower multiplier when people take care of their property and mitigate it.”
Of course, the county can’t force people to do the right thing. People are naturally protective of their property, and Boulder residents have done their share of complaining about planned burns and logging projects. But perhaps now, with the Olde Stage fire so recently behind us, and an unknown number of dead still left to count in Victoria, it might be a good time for county residents to put some heart and thought into fire mitigation, taking care of their own property and doing what they can to support the county.
It’s only a matter of time before we’ll see a major fire. Let’s hope we’re ready for it when we do.
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