published: November 2019
by Daniel S. Johnson
Historically, low-intensity surface fires every 30 years or so, caused either by lightning or by indigenous people, had been the norm. That changed after the Big Blowup of 1910, when millions of acres burned in the western states, killing around 75 firefighters. Fire was thereafter viewed as having no natural benefit and all fires were extinguished as fast as possible. In the late 1960s and early 70s, fire managers began to conclude that full suppression of wildfires for half a century had been a wrong policy, causing unhealthy, overgrown forests which were beginning to exhibit potential for extreme burning conditions.
It has taken decades to implement a more natural burn plan, in which lightning fires are allowed to replenish forests and more controlled burning, at a time of year when intensity could be moderated, has come into favor. To complicate these plans, the west has been growing, with people flocking to forested areas to live in beauty and privacy. With the advent of the internet, workers are more likely to be able to complete tasks from anywhere, no longer required to live in cities.
The past few decades have been challenging for forest managers who want to get back to healthier forests, but also are charged with the protection of private homes scattered throughout wildland forests. To save the structures, most wildfires are still suppressed, causing further buildup of fuels, leading to even more catastrophic future blazes.
The declaration of wilderness areas, where undeveloped forests were set aside with the aim of keeping them wild, was meant to increase animal habitat and preserve endangered species by banning roads, houses and other human infrastructure. Fire in these environments was to be observed and allowed to burn unless it continued outside the wilderness boundaries and toward populated areas.
The Decker Fire started with a lightning strike on September 8 in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. Burn modules, usually consisting of 10 people, were dispatched to monitor fire intensity, spread potential and after-effects. As with much of Colorado’s spruce forests, beetle infestation has been rampant in this area and the fire was left to clean up massive areas of standing dead and downed trees. Hotshot crews worked certain flanks to check fire growth, but the vast majority of the burn area remained in the inaccessible high country, described as “a huge rock with trees on it.” Nothing in that rugged wilderness was considered worth placing a firefighter’s life in danger.
Nearly a month later, our weather shifted to extremely dry and windy conditions, causing the Decker to move miles, towards Salida and surrounding small towns. It was declared a Type One incident on September 30 and hundreds of firefighters were ordered for defensive actions. As the flames peaked Methodist Mountain the night of October 1, the fire ran downslope toward Salida and into flatter topography where fire suppression could be effective, and much safer.
Only a single historic cabin was lost as dozers and hotshot crews worked all night to save homes below the Rainbow Trail. But mother nature was not finished with her cleanup operations, as we faced red flag conditions for nearly two weeks with relative humidities down into the single digits and wind gusts up to 55 mph.
I was overseeing structure protection for around 25 structures in the Bear Creek and Silverheels areas. We mitigated trees and brush around houses, moved woodpiles and set up pumpkins (portable water tanks) with pumps, hose lays and sprinklers. One resident told us not to cut any trees around their home so we were forced to only set up plumbing. A few days later, the fire ran two miles down a drainage and incinerated that house and all its trees. Another resident who had stayed to prepare their own properties, eventually ran out of supplies and left. We then set up pumps around known structures before another wave of fire ran down the next drainage and wiped out numerous outbuildings.
If not for the efforts of the 1,000+ firefighters, dozers, 9 helicopters and air tankers, many more houses would have been lost. Homeowners who had done their own fire mitigation allowed us to safely protect their houses and many trees survived around them.
The towns of Crestone and the Baca Grande exist in similar conditions to the Decker Fire area and the Spring Creek Fire from last summer. In these environments, fire is a necessary part of the natural cycles of growth, death and renewal. Preparing before a wildfire is not moralistic preaching with punishment for noncompliance, it is pure common sense. When we choose to live in forested nature, we have chosen to live with fire.
As the earth warms, allowing more invasive beetles to survive the winters, we will witness even more tree mortality and intense wildfires. Burn areas may not regrow with the same species of trees; often aspens and oak brush replace them. More grasses and wildflowers may appear where the sun is now able to reach the surface. All is evolving and we must adapt with it if we choose to call this magnificent valley our home.
For a free wildfire hazard assessment, call 719-480-9764.