By Mark W. Danielson
The mountains are a war zone, the enemy Mother Nature. From the Rockies west, everything is at risk. I have seen many wildfires while living in or flying over mountain areas and I have never seen a fire season start like this.
One particularly bad fire, known as the West Fork Fire in south Colorado, has destroyed thousands of acres and sent billowing smoke clouds above 41000 feet. Countless smaller fires surrounded the area with wind-whipped flames. Although this region between Alamosa and Durango is relatively remote, homes and ski areas are either in jeopardy or have been destroyed. The West Fork Fire came only days after the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs consumed some five hundred homes. I happened to be flying abeam the West Fork Fire on my way across the country and snapped these shots from 38,000 feet. I have never felt so helpless.
For years, the Japanese beetle has been killing western pine forests. Now, drought and extreme heat have turned these timberlands into kindling. While lightning is responsible for many fires, some, like the Black Forest Fire, were man-made. Regardless of how they start, every wildfire requires massive resources that we can neither afford nor have.
Of course, wildfires are not limited to the United States. In the Australian outback, wildfires branch out in concentric circles. From 35,000 feet at night, these fires resemble large cities. Unless they threaten habitats, Australians leave it up to nature to extinguish them. In some remote areas of the United States, the U.S. Forest Service also elects to do this because fire clears the underbrush and spawns new growth. While this is not practical in developed areas, not allowing such burns has increased the risk of conflagrations such as the West Fork Fire. These firestorms create their own weather patterns, often generating fire tornadoes that turn steel into butter and vaporize animals. Extinguishing such fires in mountain regions is extremely hazardous, time consuming, and dependent upon Mother Nature’s cooperation.
When the smoke eventually clears, a fire’s cause is only relevant to criminal proceedings. No words can adequately describe an evacuee’s stress, especially when the fate of their pets or loved ones is unknown. This summer promises more of the same – heat, drought, lighting, wildfires. As in sports, our best defense is a good offense. Please report all smoke. Do not discard lit cigarette butts. Only set off fireworks over water. Most importantly, thank your first-responders for all that they do. Firefighters may have down time, but when everything hits the fan, they lay down their lives for us. Happy Independence Day!