Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado
June 29, 2012

As People Struggle To Contain Wildfires, Nature Conspires Against Them

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A conspiracy between Nature´s forces has sent walls of fire ripping through Colorado sending residents, officials, and first responders scrambling into action.

One of the more devastating fires, the Waldo Canyon fire, has forced more than 32,000 people in and around Colorado´s second-most-populous city of Colorado Springs from their homes.

The blaze, which began Saturday, is just 15 percent contained, according to the daily update from the scene. As of Friday morning, thousands of acres of forest and 347 structures have been consumed by the fire.

Despite the warnings and devastation, many people in the area are warily trying to carry on daily life as firefighting crews battle the blaze.

“In the beginning there was much more concern, now it seems to be business as normal for most of the area,” Colorado Springs resident Aimee Sack told redOrbit.

“A larger population lives on the east side, which is not threatened at all other than the bad smoke. So that side of town hasn´t been concerned -- but moving forward. The west side looks like a ghost town. Places are closed even outside of the mandatory evacuation area.”

Over 1,000 personnel have been dispatched to battle the Waldo Canyon fire, including a group of Hot Shots from Vandenburg Air Force Base. The only federal firefighting crew of 18 men and women left California on Wednesday and intends not only to protect the citizens of Colorado Springs, but the nearby Air Force academy as well.

"We all got into the mindset that this is going to be a nasty situation," said Jesse Hendricks, Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendent. "We understand fatigue will be a factor, so we are all hydrating and are trying to get as much sleep as we can before getting to Colorado. When we go into any wildfire we try to relate it to our 'mental slides,' meaning that we recall similar wildfires and pull from those lessons learned so that we will be more effective."

One of the strategies used by the Hot Shots is what they call “structure triage,” according to Hendricks.

“First we remove any fuel source, like trees or shrubbery, from around the home using hand tools,” he said. “Once we´ve created an area clear of fuels, we actually burn a fire around the structure that will carry the initial fire away from the homes.”

Officials on both the local and national level have been coordinating efforts and resources in an attempt to minimize damage caused by the fires.

This morning President Obama signed a disaster declaration for Colorado, which releases federal funds for the affected areas. He also plans to survey the area around Colorado Springs, along with other officials.

“I really appreciate the president coming here,” said Colorado Springs mayor Steve Bach to CNN reporter Chelsea J. Carter. “If nothing more than just to reassure us that this is a focus at a national level, that there are people all over this country who are concerned for our citizens and those who have lost their homes.”

"And I do plan to ask for cash,” he noted.

The disaster declaration will add to an already massive undertaking that involves crews and resources from many of Colorado´s neighboring states.

"We've got competition for firefighting assets, but we're still at a point where we've got lots of available assets to mix and match on individual incidents," Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Associated Press.

On Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center raised the nation's wildfire preparedness level one notch to the fourth out of five levels. This is only the third time in the last 20 years the country has reached this level by late June, with the others coming in 2002 and 2008.

While many are quick to point to environmental conditions or even global warming, some are fingering a culprit working on a much smaller scale. The Colorado fires are working as a sort of cremation for forests that have been decimated by mountain pine beetles for almost half a decade. Wide swaths of dried, red canopy point to an infestation that has affected around 70 percent of the trees in the region, according to the Denver Post.

The beetles swarm across the forest´s hills and valleys using pheromone signals to coordinate their attack. Once they have settled into an area, the insects feast on the pine trees and spread a blue stain fungus, which they carry in their mouths. After infecting a tree, this fungus zaps the wood of its moisture, multiplying the effect the insects have on the forest.

While fires are as much a part of the area´s forest ecology as the trees themselves, many people have said that current conditions could be a recipe for disaster. Years of warmer temperatures have translated into the pine beetles inhabiting the forests at “epidemic” levels. Their presence accelerates this natural cycle of death and rebirth.

The beetle's life cycle is extremely temperature-dependent. While its populations are killed off by frosts, warm temperature allow the insects to proliferate and in some cases higher temperatures have been shown to allow the beetles to reproduce twice a year instead of once.

A robust pine beetle population combined with the dry winter and hot spring of the past six months and you have a perfect storm of conditions for a series of devastating fires, according to Reghan Cloudman, public information officer for the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.

"Usually, you expect to see fuel moisture at around 90 percent in healthy trees," Cloudman told Scientific American. "This year, we were seeing levels of closer to 60 percent before the fire."

Several management techniques have been used to control the pine beetle population. One strategy involves baiting the pests with their own pheromones into a single area, where they can more easily be destroyed. Another strategy involves the controlled burning of areas with infested trees.

Whatever strategy they use, officials agree they must stay vigilant to avoid the massive fires that these beetles cause like one that swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988.