Out of the Background

In the foreground: catmint near the front steps humming with pollinators. In the background: the smoke plume from the High Chateau fire on its first afternoon, June 29.

The fear that a bad fire season would be in the offing come summer lurked in the background for months.

The prickle of anxiety persisted through the windy days of March and April. It lingered while I planted the garden, and stayed in the back of my mind as the weeds popped up and I started pulling and mowing. In defiance of worry, I bought new perennials for the flower beds near the house. I marveled at the tenacity of the wildflowers that managed to bloom despite the lack of rain. I started trying to photograph the multitudes of pollinating insects that swarmed to those flowers, wondering if their numbers were particularly high or they were merely more concentrated on whatever blossoms were available.

As summer officially punched its timecard and started its shift, I thought we might squeak through: perhaps the thunderstorms of summer would arrive before the fires did.

The rains haven’t arrived.

The fires have.

Wildfire in the American West is a fantastically complicated subject, both ecologically and culturally. The topic resists simplification; in fact, the simple idea that fire should be excluded from the landscape is now a factor in the severity of many fires.

As I thought about composing a new blog post over the past couple of weeks, I resisted the idea of writing about wildfire, even as the topic claimed a growing share of mind day over day. For one thing, I’ve touched on the subject before. For another, writing yet another blog bemoaning lack of precipitation seemed tiresome. Plus, well, geez: fires are such a downer.

But I was arguing with myself all the while. If this blog is indeed about life in this part of the Central Rockies, it can’t not be about fire, sometimes. Wildfire is indigenous to ponderosa pine forests, and I live at the edge of a ponderosa pine forest. The more I thought about the realities of wildfire in this setting, the more it seemed a bit odd that I haven’t written more about fire.

Smoke from the East Fork Complex, burning about 100 miles southwest of us, in June 2013.

Then I realized that I haven’t had much occasion to do so because the last really bad fire season we had was in the summer of 2013, and I started this blog in October of that year. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of fires in the last five years, and fire danger is never far from my mind. But the last time the hazard loomed large enough to take over the collective consciousness of the entire region was 2013. Then as now, fires dominated gossip, overwhelmed news reports, and filled the sky with smoky haze day after day (and then week after week).

2013 was fraught in part because it felt like an extension of the 2012 fire season, which was marked by the Waldo Canyon blaze. We weren’t particularly close to that fire, but the enormous smoke plume would billow over the shoulder of Pikes Peak in the afternoons, dwarfing the mountain and dominating the horizon. The fire would eventually make a run into the west-side neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, sending thousands of residents, including friends, fleeing. By the time it was out, Waldo Canyon had become Colorado’s most destructive wildfire. That record didn’t last, however, falling less than a year later when a fire ripped through the Black Forest community north of Colorado Springs, burning nearly 500 houses.

The Black Forest fire started on June 12, 2013. The same day, the Royal Gorge fire ignited, burning between our house and Cañon City, about 16 miles south of here. We were upwind, but I again watched smoke boiling up on the horizon. Meanwhile, in the mountains on the west side of the state, multiple fires merged to form the East Fork complex, burning in high-elevation lodgepole pine forests and sending smoke drifting for hundreds of miles.

Dry air holds tension very effectively, I think, and it was difficult not to obsess. As the fires burned, my attention rotated from smoke columns to various media channels, incessantly checking updates, road closures, evacuation notices, weather forecasts.

In July, the rains finally began—hair raising at first, as lightning stabbed at tinder dry fuels. But the grass eventually softened and began to turn green again, the dust relented, and the trees began to drink. By September, we’d received enough rain to push our annual precipitation numbers for 2013 well above average. The worry by then was flash flooding across all the burn scars.

2014 was less marked by radical swings from wet to dry. In 2015, a wet weather pattern set up over the region, in some areas dropping a year’s worth of rain in a few weeks during May. Flooding was front of mind, not fire, at least until fall. The winter of 2015/2016 wasn’t noteworthy for snow, but storms in April and May ushered in a welcome rush of spring green, and a wet August refreshed the verdure. The next winter was downright dry, but spring snows again mitigated fire danger somewhat, and July and August brought a fair monsoon. I thought about fires, but mostly in the context of how nice it was to not feel like they were right on the doorstep.

Smoke from the High Chateau fire fills low terrain on the morning of July 2.

Since then, however, the tap of our regional precipitation appears to have been shut off. After five years of relative luxury, our fire weather luck has run out. In the eight months before the 2013 fire season, the year of the Royal Gorge and Black Forest burns, my NWS rain gauge collected 7.33 inches of precipitation.

From November 2017 until now, the tally is 4.08.

So, yes, fire is front of mind these days. In the space of a few days last week, four fires started close enough to home that their smoke plumes are features on our horizon. One of them, the Spring Creek fire, is closing in on 100,000 acres as I write this: another monster for the record books. The smell of smoke creeps into the house whenever the wind is right.

But that’s life. This is the reality of my local environment. Conifer forests evolved with wildfire and if we want to live here—which we do—we have to evolve, too. Climate change exacerbates the conditions favorable to wildfire, and it’s possible I’ll look back wistfully on the five-year stretch between 2013 and 2018, when fire stayed more or less in the background. Meanwhile, we’ll carry on with mitigation efforts around the house and barn: mowing, felling some more trees, cutting brush. I’m shopping for fine-mesh metal screening for our roof vents, and will haul in pea gravel for the planting beds near the house. We’ve reviewed our evacuation plan and I’m writing it up so we have a checklist on hand if fire breaks out nearby and we decide we need to leave. We’ll keep watching for smoke, even as we remind ourselves to enjoy life in our beautiful corner of the Colorado Rockies.

Smoke from the Weston Pass fire paints the sunset on July 1.

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4 Responses to Out of the Background

  1. Kayann says:

    “Between fire and flood” describes life along the northern Front Range where increased drought and deluge are two sides of the global warming weather coin. Our 2013 flood seems to have wiped out my memory of the 2013 Colorado fires, so thank you for this reminder. Hard to believe Lyons is coming up on the five-year flood anniversary. Those of us living around here for decades talk about pre- and post-flood Lyons. So much has changed since then, in part because disaster capitalism brought upscale growth to that small town, not always welcome, especially in terms of affordable housing. I hope this summer continues your five-year non-fire stretch.

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Kayann, the swings between fire and flood seem to whip-saw ever faster. These last two weeks of July have finally brought monsoon moisture, at times too much and too fast. I feel for the people in and near the new burn scars, who have had to deal with fire and immediately cope with flood, too. The before-and-after disaster experience will be familiar to more and more people, I guess, and we will continue to discover new ramifications, both for the landscape and for communities. May your summer bring interludes of boring moderation.

  2. Janis Schiller says:

    The last few times, it’s always rained on the day we arrive. We’ll try to keep that mojo going. 🤞

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Janis, it’s bad enough that I’m about ready to start washing windows. That always brings on the rain.

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