It started fast. For days the heaping pile of long-extinguished ash showed no hint of life. Then the winds began.
Sept. 6, 2010 started out just like many other late summer days in Colorado – the temperature was average, the moisture level dry. The difference was the wind. On this day, the wind speeds exceeded 40 mph, with an average speed of 15 mph.
The winds grabbed the ashes and ignited the improperly extinguished embers. The fire instantly grew beyond any control. Within 15 minutes, the fire was so large that the firefighters switched to the defensive instead of fighting it, and tried to evacuate the residents. Aided by the wind, the fire jumped from treetop to treetop and ran along the ground, burning 5,733 acres on the first day alone. Over the course of a few days, the Fourmile Canyon Fire burned a total of 6,108 acres. At the time, it was the most destructive fire in Colorado history, with 168 homes burned.
This area is accustomed to wildfires. Every few years, big fires will erupt much like the Fourmile Fire. What made this fire different was the speed with which it grew and the amount of destruction it left in its wake.
“What the Fourmile Fire taught both myself and the Office of Emergency Management is that it’s not about fighting the disaster,” said Bret Gibson, the Fourmile Fire Chief. “Disasters are going to happen, and you can’t stop them. Rather, it’s all about the recovery. It’s about getting people back into their home.”
Recovery after fires can come in a number of ways, such as rebuilding of homes and restoring utility services like electricity and water. Additionally, the Fourmile Canyon Fire proved important for the discussion regarding fire management in the Colorado Front Range.
“Similar to building on a floodplain, you can’t expect [your home] to not burn,” said Tom Veblen, a CU professor and forest researcher, in reference to building homes in high-risk fire areas.
Currently, the preferred method of fire management is that of fuel treatments, or tree-thinning and prescribed burns. While this method has been shown to be highly effective in the lower elevations, the same is not true for those higher elevations, such as the area burned in the Fourmile Fire.
“This fire burned the same way they’ve burned for thousands of years,” Veblen said, meaning that from a scientific point of view, there was nothing ecologically significant about the Fourmile Fire, and that the fuel treatments that had been in place had little effect. Instead, what was significant was the impact it had on the nearby communities.
Despite the lack of definitive evidence that fuel treatments work in higher elevations, the process was, and still is, practiced. One problem with this is that trees that were cut down for fuel treatments aren’t disposed of properly. Rather, they are moved from one location to another. This practice had a huge impact on the Fourmile Fire.
According to a joint-report issued by the United States Forest Service and the United States Department of Agriculture, the fire was predominantly a crown fire (a fire that moves on the treetops), but 83 percent of the destruction of the homes was caused by surface fires, or ones that move along the ground. One speculated culprit was the practice of moving the logs that were left behind from the fuel treatments.
Going forward, the threats of wildfires such as the Fourmile Canyon Fire are only forecasted to increase, most importantly due to the influx of people into areas prone to wildfires and the effects of human-induced climate change. The effects are already being seen in the Colorado Front Range, where three fires more destructive than the Fourmile Fire have broken out in the previous five years: the Black Forest Fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire and the High Park Fire.
“What would you do if someone came to your door at 9 p.m., and told you that you needed to leave? Where would you go?” Chief Gibson asked. “If you can’t answer that question, you’re going to be a victim.”
Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Caitlyn Leytham-Powell at email@example.com