Monday, July 1, 2013

Welcome to Hell!

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! 



Naomi Avendano said...

Losing 19 firefighters in the horrible tragedy that just occurred in Arizona makes your post even more compelling and poignant. I visited my daughter and son-in-law in Denver and they showed me the devastating loss of trees in Colorado. Has it ever been like this before or is this the low point?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Naomi, it is a horrible coincidence that this post comes on the day we learn of this most recent tragedy in Arizona. There is no way to predict how bad this year will be, only that as record highs continue, we can expect worsening conditions. The most important point is to remain vigilant and realize we can all make a difference by being extra careful this year.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks for such an insight into these phenomena, Mark - all the more sobering in the light of the awful news about those brave young men in Arizona. So significant, too, that there you were, high above these events thanks to an activity which was only made possible by the creative ingenuity of humans, and yet you were witnessing how helpless we can be when Nature asserts itself.

Mark W. Danielson said...

So true, Bill. I felt the same helplessness flying over Iraq while smoke billowed from oil fires -- all the result of war. Thankfully the beauty I see from the air offsets the tragedy.