Five years after Black Forest fire, danger looms
June 18, 2018
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When Frances Burke's children were young, one of them carved "I love Mom" into the hearth of her wood-burning fireplace.
Thirty-some years ago, her kids all denied chiseling the words into the stone. Now, they all take credit.
The message was a permanent fixture in the Burke home, which was tucked in a dense stand of ponderosa pines at the end of a rural road in Black Forest. It was there when they graduated high school, when her son moved to Malaysia for work and when one of her cats turned 20.
Then, suddenly, it was gone.
On June 11, 2013, a maelstrom of flames exploded on Shoup Road and Colorado 83 in Black Forest. During the next nine days, the fire burned 14,280 acres, consumed 489 homes and killed two people. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history, surpassing the Waldo Canyon fire just a year earlier.
Burke's home and the ponderosas that once shielded it burned to ash. So did many of her oil paintings and albums of family photos. The hearth and the words it bore melted in the heat of the firestorm.
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"These things are history, and you can't replace history'" Burke said last week, dabbing tears from her eyes with a tissue. "You just can't, and that's rough."
What she could replace were the torched trees. And as soon as it was safe, she did. Since 2014, she has planted more than 200 trees on her 11-acre lot in addition to extensive mitigation work. Her land is now a patchwork of plants: 10-foot high chokecherry trees, lilac trees that stand just above your knee and infant evergreens.
It may not be the haven of ponderosa pines that drew her to Black Forest 44 years ago, but it's something.
"If you're not moving forward, you're falling behind," she said.
Many others have moved forward alongside Burke, with residents rebuilding nearly 300 homes. But, with a potentially catastrophic wildfire season on the horizon in El Paso County, has Black Forest moved far enough to avert another tragedy?
RESTORING LIVES TAKES MONEY
Black Forest Together spends little time dwelling on predictions, preferring action, instead.
"A community that has experienced disaster and has gone through recovery needs to be their own advocate because no one will care as much for that community as the people living there," said Planning Coordinator Nancy Trosper. "The more community drive and collectivism, the better they'll recover."
The nonprofit, started in the wake of the fire, has logged about 47,000 volunteer hours since 2013 to recover, rebuild and restore the lives of those affected by the fire. In 2017, the group completed 84 projects in 102 days, including the mitigation of 148 acres and relocation of 250 ponderosas to 37 homes and the community park.
Black Forest Together's role has evolved with residents' needs, director Ken Clark said. What started as triage — providing affected residents with food, clothes and shelter — has evolved into chipping and cleaning, then mitigation, and now reforestation.
What has stayed constant, though, is the community's need for financial assistance.
The cost of mitigation on a typical 5-acre lot is about $10,000, according to Black Forest Together. In addition to the costs of the structures and other lost property are the lingering health effects and emotional trauma not covered by insurance, as well as daily living expenses.
Many of the areas affected by the Waldo Canyon fire were public lands, and therefore eligible for funding from the city of Colorado Springs, El Paso County and the U.S. Forest Service. The Black Forest fire overwhelmingly razed private property, which public funding frequently cannot touch.
Black Forest residents had to rely on personal funds, Individual Disaster Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the initiative of organizations such as Black Forest Together.
So, when Black Forest Together receives project funding, their waiting list grows faster than their resources can manage. When that money runs dry, though, the demand for their services drops.
"You have a group of people out here that understand the importance of mitigating but can't do it because of the financial burden," Clark said. "When we get grant money, people are proactive in calling us to get work done."
Launched in early 2018, Trees 4 Tomorrow transplants healthy trees from unmitigated properties to ones in the burn area in need of more trees. Crews can move 10 trees a day and are booked up for the next several weeks. By the end of the year, Clark and Trosper hope to move 1,300 trees.
Their efforts could be aided by Black Forest resident Neil Behnke, who is one of three finalists for John Deere's Small Machines, Big Impact contest. If Behnke wins, he will receive a new skid loader that will be used to remove burned trees and transplant healthy ones.
Though the survival rate of a conventionally-purchased tree is higher, the cost of an uprooted tree is about half the price.
"This is really to give homeowners an affordable outlet to reclaim what they lost," Clark said.
Carolyn Brown didn't lose much, she says.
Yes, her home, 5 acres of fencing and various outbuildings were obliterated, but they didn't matter much to her.
"Family and animals are not replaceable," she said. "My house, my saddles, my clothes all are."
So is her forest, and the tractor she now drives day after day as she plants, mows and waters her property's denuded, eroded hillsides.
"My basic thing is that the fire is done. It's spilled milk," said Brown, who also helps run Black Forest Slash and Mulch. "All my energy goes into claiming my property again."
"Plus, it's good therapy for me to cut trees," she said.
Not everyone in Black Forest is as friendly with a chainsaw as Brown. There are some who refuse to ever cut a tree down, said Dave Root, a Colorado State Forest Service mitigation expert.
"They moved there for the trees, they want their privacy, and they don't want to see neighbors," he said.
Others have a misconception that mitigation is clear-cutting. Root has spent every year since the Hayman fire in 2002 debunking that myth through consultations with private landowners and partnerships with organizations like Black Forest Together.
"The goal is to be good stewards of the forest," Root said. "I ask people what they want, what their objectives for the property, whether wildlife or plant life or defensible space. I then see how that fits into the overall health of forest."
Clark says these types of discussions and management practices are part of the informal terms of agreement to living in Black Forest.
"There is a responsibility of living out here," Clark said. "You can't just be your house and be done."
FUELS JUST NEED A SPARK
Though El Paso County was spared from any major fires last year, the country experienced its costliest wildfire season ever in 2017, with damages exceeding $18 billion, and its third largest fire season by area burned in nearly 60 years, according to a study led by the director of the University of Boulder's Earth Lab, Jennifer Balch.
Nationwide, more than 12,000 homes and structures were destroyed or damaged, at least 200,000 people were forced to evacuate and 66 people lost their lives in fires or subsequent mudslides.
Coined the "big burn of 2017" by researchers, last year's fire season was fueled by tall, dry grasses that grew during the country's relatively wet winter and hot and early spring. It was the "perfect recipe for fire(s)" that devastated California, the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the West.
The ingredients of Colorado's 2018 fire season look a bit different, but could pose equally, if not more, dangerous threats.
As on the West Coast, the above-average precipitation levels in Colorado in 2017 spurred the growth of grasses that, unless mowed, are 3 to 4 feet tall in many areas, Root said. In a normal precipitation year, these grasses would die off in the winter, then revive during the spring green-up period when they are fed by rain and snowmelt.
This year, the foliage waited and waited and waited for snowmelt and consistent rain that never came.
Compounded by an average temperature 7.9 degrees higher than normal in May, the conditions parched Colorado Springs' turf and left fields of kindling for the next spark to ignite.
Already, El Paso County set the record this year for the largest wildfire in county history after the 117 fire scorched 42,795 acres in mid-April near Hanover. About a month earlier, a fire that started on Fort Carson burned 3,300 acres in the Midway Ranches community.
Looking ahead, the Bureau of Land Management predicted above average temperatures and drier than average conditions for the rest of June before the Southwest monsoon delivers much-needed moisture in early July. El Paso County will have average potential for large fires through June, while the southwest corner of the state has above average potential.
"I think people are frightened this season, and reasonably so given the way the weather has been because it is Hayman, Waldo, Black Forest déjà vu all over again," Root said. "The reminder of Waldo plus the 117 and Carson Midway fires is an uh-oh moment for a lot of people."
Black Forest is not exempt from a major fire, either, despite going up in the flames just five years ago. What were once moonscapes of incinerated pines and ashen debris are now grassy meadows that are 3 feet high. It's the perfect kindling for a rogue ember, as demonstrated in the 117 fire.
"I hate to break the news to people, but just because we burned five years ago doesn't mean you won't burn again," Root said. "We've simply exchanged one fuel for another."
'ON TOP OF OUR GAME'
The afternoon of the Black Forest fire, Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District received a typical automatic aid request for an outside fire and sent two units.
Then-Battalion Chief Bryan Jack did not deploy immediately. But after 10 minutes of listening to scanner chatter, he drove a bit east. There, he saw a column of smoke in the sky and recalled his entire shift crew.
"I used to work for the U.S. Forest Service in a Hotshot crew, so I know when a column is going to get big," he said.
Five years later, Jack is Black Forest Fire Rescue Protection District chief. His experience has shown him that this season's fire and weather outlooks are "heightened indicators that we need to be on top of our game."
Every morning, his crew reviews the forecast for the county and the federal resources available in case of a fire. On fire weather watch and red flag days, the team also adds two people on each of its three shifts and patrols the community for spot fires and illegal burning.
When a fire breaks out, Jack's tactics are different every time. The 117 fire was "95 percent" a grass fuel model, whereas the flames in Black Forest and Waldo were in the canopy of a forest.
Emotionally, those fires stick with him.
"In this line of work, you see tragedy all the time; you see sad stuff all the time," he said. "I think you take those experiences with you and try to be as compassionate as possible on any incident."
There's a brotherhood that grows between first responders on the front lines of tragedy, too, which Jack said has helped streamline communication and tactical coordination among the 26 fire districts in the county.
This year, a countywide mutual aid system was implemented in which strike teams and tasks forces are automatically called to fires in pre-assigned districts. The system expedites resource deployment to an area under siege while keeping unaffected areas protected, Jack said.
"That was a huge accomplishment this year and something that worked really well in fighting the 117 fire," he said. "District boundaries are on paper for taxing purposes. Realistically we look at challenges in El Paso County as all of our challenges."
Sharing resources is critical as limitations on statewide property taxes chip away at the budgets of fire districts across the state.
Under a tax-limiting provision of the state Constitution, homeowners are protected from paying more than 45 percent of the state property tax base, with commercial and other property owners picking up the rest.
Though a relief for many citizens, the provision has steadily gutted funding for fire departments, school districts and other public services that rely on property taxes, the Associated Press reported.
CLIMATE CHANGE RAISES RISKS
The cause of the Black Forest fire remains a mystery. Authorities believe it was human-caused, but, even after experts in wildland fire investigations combed through about 233 indicators, they could never pinpoint a definitive ignition source, a report from 2014 says.
Humans caused 89 percent of the wildfires in 2017, which burned nearly half of the reported acreage, according to Balch's paper. Whether from tossed cigarettes, improperly extinguished campfires or arson, these wildfires exacerbate the ripe conditions already present in an increasingly arid environment managed under forest fire suppression hawks for over 100 years.
What the West needs is "sustained policies that help us coexist with fire," including ones that incentivize building in lower-risk areas and lighting more controlled burns, Balch's study concluded.
Ultimately, the course of wildfires depends on to what extent the West, the U.S. and the world tackles climate change.
"To ignore the role of a warming climate, and our contribution to it," the study says, "puts lives and property at great risk from wildfires."
Burke sticks to what she can control, and that is her land. She's done almost everything she can to craft a life adjusted for the realities of a changing environment. Though she might not see the day when her ponderosas are as tall or as mighty as they were in 2014, she can rest easy knowing that her children and their children may.
"It's not worth hoping that the climate will get cooler and that the environment will go back to the way it was," Burke said. "You need to build and plan to live with what the environment will be."
Burke has no plans to leave, and neither does Brown. Though her meadow, once a swamp in the spring, is drier and drier every year, Black Forest is her home.
"We all have a little niche in life," she said, "and mine is here and now."
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