Waldo Canyon fire: the aftermath

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture

This summer the community of Colorado Springs endured an unforgettable July, driven by the Waldo Canyon Fire emergency and the bravery of those who contained and quenched the blaze.

In the aftermath of this event, questions arose on how to sustain and protect a growing community that slowly pushes itself into the surrounding forest ecosystem. By understanding the environment and researching methods to prevent urban invasive wildfires, the Colorado Springs community can actively avoid future emergency wildfire events.

Although the Waldo Canyon Fire ignited only 18,247 acres of land, a small number relative to other high-emergency wildfires, the fire’s proximity to human life made this one of the most destructive and threatening fires in Colorado history. Unlike other recent wildfires in the Southwest, the Waldo Canyon Fire occurred in a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), where the low-elevation ponderosa pine forests meet the urban development of the growing Colorado Springs community.

By threatening human civilization and surrounding historical landmarks such as the Air Force Academy, the Waldo Canyon Fire became an immediate emergency situation.

The consistent occurrence of wildfires in order to mitigate tree density is inherent to the ecology of many Colorado forests. Over the past seventy years, wildfire policy dictated a zero tolerance prevention of wildfires. Before human beings began influencing forest ecology, low-intensity ground wildfires burned herbaceous shrubs, grass, and saplings, decreasing the density of the forests.

Due to human prevention of ecological succession, or natural cycles of re-growth, the saplings developed into woody pines in high density, which led to the large-scale fires in dense tree stands that occurred in Waldo Canyon. As a result, forests lost the ability to naturally mitigate their populations, essentially creating a ladder system of fuels that led to dangerous crown fires located in the upper canopies of the pine forests.

Many tree species also have evolved serotinous cones and deeply rooted buds that only release under extremely high temperatures. Additionally, Aspen trees are adapted to wildfire ecology through rhizomes, or stems rooted deep in the earth. These adaptations allow vegetation to begin anew, but wildfire must be present.

Due to the high probability of large stand fires coupled with the ideal climate conditions, including high temperatures, variable afternoon winds, low humidity, and drought, the Waldo Canyon Fire quickly evolved into a serious threat.

Andrew Notbohm, a member of the Wildfire Mitigation Section of the Colorado Springs Fire Department, described the onset of the fire as, “a large plume-driven fire that produced a large convective column of gas and heat during the day. When the wind came in the afternoon the firebrands and embers were emitted and spread as surface fires and it is probable that these firebrands ignited homes.”

These tragic events destroyed the historic Flying W Ranch and many homes along Majestic and Courtney Drives by creating surface fires, which enkindled the roofs that Notbohm stated are “the most flammable part of any home.”

By the time the Waldo Canyon Fire spewed a gasping final breath, over 300 homes had burned. In the aftermath, fire professionals like Notbohm began assisting families and working towards mitigating future fires.

As more research is conducted into wildfire science and forest ecology, the prevention of wildfires has changed to emphasize the management of their behavior through active involvement in the environment.

Marc Snyder, an ecologist and professor of biology at CC, believed that “actively decreasing forest densities and instituting [a] long-term policy of fire suppression would result in a reduction of fuel sources and the intensity of wildfires.” He also encouraged the “controlled burning of small, low-frequency ground fires, which would naturally reduce the density of forests and produce spatial dispersion patterns that are more representative of a natural pine forest.”

Wildfires are bound to happen, but if we can learn to control how they burn, it benefits our community and our ecosystem.

The future of wildfire mitigation and prevention involves communication and cooperation between the fire professionals, the forest service, researchers, and, most importantly, our community. Emergency events that endanger our friends, family, and human beings in general create opportunities to come together to take action.

Wildfires are a natural occurrence, something that can never truly be controlled by human beings. Our proximity to magnificent forestry is, no doubt, one of the most wonderful things about living in Colorado Springs, but in exchange, we must continue to further our understanding of the natural cycles and needs of the environment that surrounds us.

Paul Todd

Staff Writer

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