Wildfire season well underway in the West

Black Forest Colorado fire destroys almost 400 homes-

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Update: On June 20 the Black Forest fire was contained after 500 houses had burned. RM

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The first day of summer is just about here, and wildfires are breaking out across much of the Western United States.

As usual, New Mexico begins to burn and is burning earlier than the rest. There have been a number of fires in southern California where drought has intensified the flammability of the mountain’s brushfields.  Reports of wildfires in this area have gained national attention almost every year. National news goes back a long time. There are even old news movies of the fires dating to the 1920s.

Like last year, fires next moved from New Mexico to Colorado’s Front Range where drought and a teeming population provide conditions for much property damage and the loss of 2 resident’s lives in the Black Forest Fire.  This fire, which burns well out of the mountains eastward, is NE of Colorado Springs. A Colorado record of 397 homes have burned so far in this fire.

While there will be talk about changing climate and drought, the Black Forest area seems to mostly be a good example how not live safely in a forest. Some call the Black Forest  “the largest contiguous stretch of ponderosa pine in the United States.”  Ponderosa live by fire. Fires should be expected, and the big yellow pine (an alternate name for them) thrive when there are frequent ground fires. Their thick bark resists ground fire. These low and “cool” fires eliminate the ponderosa’s competition. The building of homes and fire suppression in such a forest, however, often spells catastrophe. Other trees grow up under the Ponderosa when ground fires are suppressed. This allows the flames to reach the tops of Ponderosa, killing the tree, and making for a much hotter fire.

Building large homes in the forest in meandering lanes with no logic except landscape aesthetics, roads that often dead end, make fire protection very hard. Fancy wooden shingles are  perhaps the single most important reason why one home burns and the next one, with a metal roof, survives.

Fires are expected to soon spread into Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and later Montana (which had a lot of late spring rain, especially east of the Continental Divide).

Last weekend, I took an inspection trip to the country just south of Yellowstone Park  (Idaho-Wyoming border). Heavy fuels, e.g., logs and trees,  are very dry despite some beautiful but very temporary wildflower displays this year. There is a lot of “red” (dying) lodgepole pine. The red needles burn like gasoline.  If there is an ignition, this could be a place of a big fire. Idaho in general is set once again for large fires this year. Last summer and fall saw tremendous Idaho forest fires. They burned until mid-October. So far range fires have been much less than usual in Idaho, probably due to a dry, but extended cold spring.  All but the northern tip of Idaho is shown as in drought in the prestigious Drought Monitor.

Story on the Black Canyon Fire. Black Forest fire most destructive in Colorado history. Associated Press.



  1. MIKEPOST Avatar

    Looking at aerials of burning homes from the Black fire the property clearance around many of those mega-homes was completely inadequate for a crown fire. Doing the minimum required by law may save you from a ground fire but it is not the path to fire safety in this era of changing forest health. As Ralph has so clearly stated, this stuff is SUPOSSED TO BURN. Here, way out west, any fire professional will privately agree that any wildland fire that doesn’t hurt someone or someone’s home is a “good” fire.

  2. cobackcountry Avatar

    Some really dear friends of mine have been evacuated from their home near Evergreen, CO. Last year, another family close to ours was effected by the Waldo Canyon fire.

    I reflect on the 88 fires in YNP and my years watching the rebirth. I would hope that these fires give rise to healthy ecosystems. I also hope I am still around to see it all come full circle.

  3. JimT Avatar

    The big elephant in the room on the wild fire issue is this…Should these homes be built in historically wild fire prone areas in the first place? Ironically, it is the flip side of building in floodplains–should homes be built and then re-built in these areas?

    Add in climate change, historically high levels of drought in the West, and you rapidly conclude this is the new normal. Sad, but true. There was a home owner in a fire near Boulder two years ago who had a 5000 gallon cistern on his property and a pump truck. Never even got to try them…fire chased him down the road and almost caught him.

    I think fire mitigation is fine, but it will not be sufficient when you have these perfect storm conditions repeatedly occurring…lots of tinder due to fire suppression, drought, winds, hot temps and low humidity. And we are having way too may of those here in Colorado these days..

    1. BRW Avatar

      It’s a little late to be asking “should they?” Late by about 130 years. Fires happen. People who build in the area do so at their own risk. Most of us know that risk and do what we can to mitigate it. The area was waiting to burn . . .and it did. Now it’s safe for another hundred years.

      1. Rosemary Avatar

        Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have reported that many of these ponderosa forest burns will not come back. Some of the fires here in N.M. burned over previous burns, with the soils sterilized, along with everything else. The wildlife are suffering, too. Too bad humans can’t think of anyone but themselves.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Not to change the subject, but an interesting article:

    But even if the world weren’t getting hotter, the dangers from cataclysmic fires in the American West would be rising. The number of homes built in what forestry experts call the “wildland-urban interface” — the areas where development meets forests or other wild vegetation — grew by 6.6 million from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 18 percent.

    The combination of more fires and more houses near wildlands has put more property at risk. Last year, the federal government spent $1.9 billion fighting forest fires, more than four times the annual average during the 1990s. Then there are the costs that can’t be calculated: From 2002 to 2012, 192 firefighters died trying to suppress wildland blazes. Including Yarnell, 24 more died in the first six months of this year.

    Let’s Get Ready To Fight The Next Wildfire

  5. Rosemary Avatar

    Perhaps it is time for humans to get out of these forests, along with the livestock, as well. Here in New Mexico, we also have humans building homes (often “vacation” homes), right up against wilderness areas. Livestock trample the already-denuded grasses and damage what is left of riparian areas. The forests cannot take this stress, now, as Climate Change worsens. These remaining forests are home to struggling wildlife. Many are starving and thirsty. It is time for humans to start thinking about the other life on this planet. Actually its quite overdue.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan