Mike Benefield: The coming conflagration: a prophesy
August 22, 2009
I read, with interest, about the Breckenridge Town Council revoking the recent ordinance requiring citizens to take measures to reduce the fuel loadings around their residences. Recently, before I was aware that this action had taken place, my wife and I were driving by your communities along I-70. Both my wife and I are wild land fire managers by profession with over 65 years of fire experience between us. We were both shocked and dismayed by the overall situation that we found around and within the mountain communities impacted by the beetle infestation. Of course, without even knowing the story, we knew the local story. It is the same story as hundreds of other communities that are in the same situation across the West. The fire regime of the local natural ecosystem has been upset by decades of fire suppression and other factors including climate change. Now forests are dying while small rural mountain communities are growing like weeds. These are communities in which one factor wants to change the environment, while the other would like to maintain the present environment. My wife and I saw this human story written on the hillsides surrounding Breckenridge and Vail.
Ignorance is bliss, they say. It is hard to understand life out West if you are an absentee property owner from some place east of the 100 meridian, where rain is regular and wildfires don’t regularly lay waste to hundreds of square miles within a few days.
There is no politically correct way to break this to the citizens of Breckenridge and Vail, but your towns are doomed.
I’m not a “Chicken Little,” as I have fought wildfires and managed chaos from Alaska to Australia, California to Kentucky, and lots of places in between. I don’t sweat the “little stuff.” It’s just that I have seen your situation so many times before that it has become commonplace. It’s best summed up afterward when some burned out citizen comes up to me in a daze mumbling, ” I never knew that this could happen.”
The day your towns are destroyed will look something like this:
The weather will have been relatively dry for a number of weeks. One sunny afternoon you will smell pitch in the air, the odor will be strong – just a seemingly insignificant indicator of another day in paradise. Also seemingly insignificant will be the sudden increase in the winds, as a dry cold front approaches the Continental Divide from the northwest. Somewhere upwind of the town an ignition will erupt, the cause won’t seem as important as the effect soon after. As the fire climbs into the canopy of the dead firs, lodgepole and spruce, embers will shower downwind into the forest, starting spot fires.
Smoke will start to fill the valley as emergency crews begin to respond. Unfortunately, the fire will be in an inaccessible place that requires air support. At this particular time, aircraft will be unavailable because they are fighting other fires in the region or nationally.
As the spot fires start to propagate, more smoke will continue to pour into the valley, until visibility is reduced to 100 feet downwind. Poor visibility will restrict fire personnel and others from detecting new spot fires that are spreading toward town. Soon, traffic on I-70 will start to be impacted by the smoke. As the traffic backs up, on all local roads and I-70, emergency vehicles will become ensnared and unable to respond.
As more and more of the forest canopy becomes involved, the heat will start to draft more air into the narrow valley, creating more wind and spot fires. Soon spot fires will start to appear on hillsides on the other side of I-70. As the spot fires begin to burn together, they will initiate a classic firestorm in which the winds will howl and fires start to ignite simultaneously across wide areas.
By this time, fires will be erupting in the middle of town, as the air temperature increases rapidly from burning buildings, vehicles and other synthetic material. People will panic as they try to evacuate their belongings, pets and other animals onto streets blocked by flames and smoke.
The hillsides of dead timber will mass ignite and fire will “flow” across the slopes in a solid mass of flames 200 feet high. The heat and smoke will be intense. The stands of aspen trees will be the last place to burn, if they burn at all. By morning, the firestorms will have passed and towns like Breckenridge and Vail will look like a bomb went off in their midst. Not all will be burned and people will be astonished by what survived the conflagration. Some homes and businesses will be left standing, while others next door will have burned to the ground. The only explanation is a change in the wind and just the right time, or a break in the continuity of the fuels available to the fire.
As the smoke clears and the fine citizens of the mountain communities assess the damage to their lives and bury their dead, anger and finger pointing will erupt like another firestorm. National, state and local politicians will all jump on the finger pointing bandwagon as everyone becomes a wildfire expert, except, of course, the poor bastards who actually had to fight the firestorm. The agencies responsible for the fire protection will be taken to task for not doing more. Unless, of course, those agencies happen to be burying one of their own who gave the last “full measure of devotion” and left their kids orphaned in the process.
By winter, the avalanches and landslides will take more homes, some of them in the process of being rebuilt from the firestorm. By the next summer, mudslides will destroy more homes and highways.
Two summers later, the hillsides will be covered in a carpet of wildflowers and grasses. The aspen groves will be regenerating and spreading out across the meadows. There will be more wildflowers than the old-timers can remember. Elk and other wildlife will be everywhere.
The towns will be rebuilt and life will be back to normal. Within five years, no one will speak of the firestorms that swept the valley. Within 30 years, the fires will have been forgotten entirely. Such is the story of the human condition. It is a state of mind where, without knowledge of the interaction between fire and landscape, when confronted by wildfire, we find ourselves eventually admitting to ourselves “I never knew that this could happen.”
It is my hope that the citizens of Breckenridge and Vail might reconsider their response to the natural world that surrounds them. If not for your community, then for the firefighters who will place themselves in harms way for the sake of you.