This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 27, 2012.
I've heard different numbers, but Colorado has had about ten to sixteen wildfires in the last few weeks, three today are big and dangerous and still not remotely under control.
The High Park fire now has about 1500 people on it west of Ft. Collins. It's eaten 90k acres or close to it, and there's 120 homes gone, probably more to come, and only one death, a near miracle. Waldo Canyon in the Springs, and Flagstaff here. If this continues, fire fighting may become an Olympic sport, because you cannot convince me less than world class athletes can stand on those lines dicing with death for hours.
Waldo Canyon is no longer just a forest fire. It's on the brink of being an urban fire storm in Colorado Springs itself - which, if it appears - is the end of the city. As of this morning 36k people had been evacuated and they have no idea as yet how many homes - some of them quite large and expensive - are gone. A lot, though. Last night the wind hit 65 miles an hour and collapsed two fire lines in 15 minutes and immediately was in the suburbs. Should the wind return this morning, there is nothing to stop the fire till it hits US Interstate 95, which runs north and south. It's already horrible beyond ken, and it could be worse by the time you hear this.
In Boulder, a fire was racing east down the Flatirons, Boulder's city icons, into the housing along Flagstaff Road and towards Chautauqua. With winds like the Waldo Canyon fire last night, which then doubled in size, it would have torched large segments of southern Boulder by now. They'd just be gone. We were lucky in recent years that when we had fires and wind, it was north of town, with much fewer buildings, and that it was much easier to fight than in the crags and crannies of the Flatirons, and the steep slopes leading up to them.
But, now we have an illustrative example of what can happen, and it's not far from my nightmare of urban firestorm consuming Mapleton Hill and/or other sections of Boulder or ANY town or city in these days of hot weather, drought, and thousands of square miles of beetle killed softwoods made even more flammable that their normal state with pitch and needle.
We need to put effort and money into preventing or lowering the likelihood of these scenarios playing out. And we have to unload the mental baggage of the pristine wilderness, because the image we have isn't entirely accurate and it is no longer relevant. We need wide firebreaks pre-cut and maintained west of Boulder, and not far away. We need to replant with options other than the Ronson lighters we choose because they were here when Methodist eyes first saw them, and we need to have building codes changed or insurance denied to people who choose to live in dangerous places. If we don't, we'll be looking like the western suburbs of Colorado Springs do today, carbonized or gone altogether. One thing that has yet to receive coverage is what would happen in Boulder if, like Colorado Springs, we found a section of the city afire and spreading rapidly. What are the evacuation plans for that? The one thing we've learned so far is that each of the recent big fires was initially underestimated and that unexpected wind with totally expected dry conditions means fire can move unbelievably fast. More important, given we only have two roads - 28th and Broadway - that reach both the north and south ends of the city, would a car-clogged evacuation work? I can remember back in the Cold War when we thought it reasonable for all of us to traipse up to Nederland in orderly file, driving slowly, remaining calm, and philosophical about the many twists and turns of life. Yeah, that'll happen. But we're no longer in the theoretical realm.
It's good to reflect on what is meant by a firestorm. It means that large acreage fires form their own weather system. The point of most heat draws air and outlying flame towards it, and that draw can be more powerful than hurricane winds. That was the horror of urban bombing during world war two. It's a blast furnace, melting what it does not burn. The Springs came very close last night and might endure that yet.
You have to plan for it well before the first whiff of smoke.