The era of megafires: An East Troublesome-like fire seems inevitable for Colorado’s resort communities
Colorado’s scariest wildfire in 2020 was not its largest. East Troublesome shocked firefighters because of its sprint and then its leap. It grew by 87,000 acres in a fiery dash across the headwaters of the Colorado River and past Grand Lake, most of that in just a couple of hours. Smoke plumes rose 40,000 feet. The winds, variously estimated at 50 to 100 mph, were strong enough to bend over lodgepole pines.
Then embers vaulted across 2 miles of treeless tundra at the Continental Divide, raining into the Estes Valley at the eastern gate to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nothing like this had ever occurred in modern Colorado history.
Eight months later, Colorado again had something extraordinary, a record-smashing heat wave in mid-June. Two Colorado towns, Alamosa and Cortez, had six consecutive days of record-high temperatures. Leadville, Grand Lake, Dillon and Del Norte had five straight days of record highs. In Vail, one town employee reported having gone to South Carolina to see a son and being shocked to find the heat was no worse than that of Eagle County.
Both phenomena — the East Troublesome Fire and the heat dome of June — are likely manifestations of the warming climate.
It’s going to get worse, climate scientists warn, much worse. Temperatures will rise. Wildfires will become larger and more unpredictable. Welcome to the age of megafires.
In California’s footsteps
California has been getting megafires and, inevitably, so will Colorado, Vail Fire and Emergency Services Chief Mark Novak said. When that happens — most likely in the next 10 to 15 years, he believes — Colorado will look back on East Troublesome and other fires during the shocking 2020 fire season as, well, not so shocking.
“I can’t tell you exactly at what point,” Novak said. “But we will look back and say, ‘Remember when Pine Gulch (a 2020 fire near Grand Junction) and East Troublesome seemed like a really big fire?’”
Before arriving in Vail in 2014, Novak saw a progression during his 30-year career on the West Coast.
“What we’re seeing today in Colorado is very similar to what California was seeing in the early years of the 2000s, from 2003 to 2007,” Novak said. “I believe that in 10 to 15 years, we will see the same type of fire that California was seeing in 2017, 2018 and 2020. I think that (East Troublesome) was just the first case of what we will see in the future.”
In November, just weeks after the East Troublesome made its run, Novak told Vail Town Council members that their community can someday expect something similar.
“I am here to tell you that fire burned extremely well and extremely fast through every fuel type,” he said. “It burned literally through aspen groves. It burned through beetle kill. It burned through green stands. It burned through sage (brush). It burned through farmers’ fields that were stubble. This was not necessarily a beetle-kill problem,” he said. “We should not rationalize that this kind of fire would not occur in Vail.”
“You scare me to death every time you speak,” a council member responded.
Colorado, like California, has been seeing progressively larger fires, but on a different order of magnitude.
As Colorado’s ski areas came of age after World War II, fires were rare. There were fires, such as the one in 1994 west of Glenwood Springs, that killed 14 firefighters amid the pinyon- and juniper-covered hillsides of Storm King Mountain. But in Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge and other headwater communities, wildfires were so distant that little attention was paid to flammability of buildings. In Vail, shake shingles were required. In Summit County, regulations discouraged removal of trees.
Fires in the 21st century have been larger, more frequent and more destructive.
The year 2002 was a harbinger. A dry winter was followed by a warm and windy spring. In early June, three wildfires broke out almost instantaneously, one of them the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs. Surveying the state’s forests by planes, Colorado’s then-Gov. Bill Owens solemnly told reporters, “All of Colorado is on fire.”
The governor was widely ridiculed, but since then, most of the state has been on fire. Most damaging were blazes in the foothills along the Front Range urban corridor. The Fourmile Canyon Fire west of Boulder destroyed 172 homes and other structures in 2010, the most destructive wildfire at that time. Then came 2012, hot and dry. High Park Fire killed one person and destroyed 248 homes west of Fort Collins. Days later, the Waldo Canyon Fire killed two people and destroyed 346 homes on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
And flames have begun to singe ski towns. In 2018, the Lake Christine Fire in the El Jebel-Basalt area incinerated 12,588 acres and nearly shut down electrical deliveries to Aspen during the Fourth of July weekend. Another fire, Grizzly Creek, shut down Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon for almost six weeks in 2020.
Fires covered fewer than 100,000 acres during the decade of the 1970s. Just last year, 650,000 acres, or more than 1,000 square miles, burned in Colorado, and another 176,000-acre fire burned in a border-straddling fire that was mostly in Wyoming.
California covers about one-third more ground than Colorado. But the area burned last year, 4.4 million acres, was six times that of what burned in Colorado.
Vail’s Novak began his career fighting fires in the San Diego area in 1984. At the time, fires of 5,000 to 10,000 acres were considered big.
In 1990, he relocated to the Lake Tahoe Basin on the California-Nevada border. The year 2007 was a pivotal one. One of the houses he had grown up in Southern California burned. At Tahoe, a major fire called Angora burned 250 houses in four hours. One of his children’s teachers lost her home, as did firefighters and police officers. Wildfire, more than before, had become personal to Novak.
Angora provoked a shift in attitudes in the Tahoe Basin. Forest thinning, which had been adamantly opposed, became more accepted. That fire now doesn’t make California’s top lists based on size, destruction or deaths. The largest to date was 2020’s August Complex Fire, which covered more than 1 million acres, followed by the Mendocino Complex Fire of July 2018 that burned 459,000 acres. The deadliest was later that year. The Camp Fire killed 88 people in Paradise. Many others have killed 10, 15 or 25 at a time.
Hot, dry and off the charts
Fire in Colorado’s Rockies, as in California’s Sierra Nevada, has always been a part of forest ecosystems.
The frequency varies depending upon vegetation. In the foothills above the Front Range urban corridor, forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir evolved with low-intensity, fast-moving fires that occurred every few decades.
On the Western Slope, the fires have historically occurred every 120 to 250 years. Frequency increases in the lower-elevation pinyon and juniper forests. Intervals in the higher-elevation spruce and fir forests lengthen to around 400 years,
Fires are natural. Even big fires are natural, as charcoal collected from the mud of lakes and the scars of trees demonstrate. What we see now is not natural.
It begins with rising temperatures. The Colorado River Basin — including the location of the East Troublesome Fire — has warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000 as compared to the 20th century average. This, according to a report by Western Water Assessment, is likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.
A 2009 paper by Connie Woodhouse, of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and others compared the 21st century warming with a notably warm period 1,000 years ago. During that period from 900 to 1300 A.D., the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than all but the most recent decades. Drought was a companion. The worst 10-year period was 1146 to 1155. That, perhaps not incidentally, was about the time the ancestral Pueblo – as the Anasazi are now more commonly called — began emigrating from the Four Corners area.
Mike Metcalf, an archaeologist based in Eagle, takes the long view. His work has examined human habitation of Colorado and other Western states since the glaciers rapidly retreated 13,500 years ago.
“There are so many things, so many variables that control climate,” he said.
But the warming and consequent aridification of the past few decades defy conventional explanations.
“The amount of drought in the West is off the charts,” Metcalf said.
A study published in 2020 in the journal Science concluded that climate change has made drought conditions 46% worse between 2000 and 2018.
Drought, as conventionally understood, no longer serves a useful purpose in describing what is being measured. Instead, some are using the word “aridification.” The effect can be seen in the reduced runoffs of the Colorado River into Lake Powell. The river flowed 543,000 acre-feet this year, compared to the May average of 2.34 million acre-feet since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966. In 2020, the winter snowpack was actually pretty good, but the runoff was subpar. This year, with drying soils sopping up greater amounts of moisture, the fast-falling levels in the giant reservoirs in Utah, Arizona and Nevada have become a national story.
As Metcalf points out, the trends just keep accelerating.
Now comes new evidence that high-elevation forests in Colorado have burned at a rate greater since 2000 than at any time in the past 2,000 years. To draw this conclusion, the University of Montana’s Philip Higuera, a fire ecologist, and two colleagues waded into the work of paleoecologists who had plumbed the depths of 20 lakes to document the fire history.
Twelve of the lakes were in the Park Range near Steamboat Springs. Others lakes were on the southeast side of Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park.
Comparing the fire record of recent years with that 2,000-year history, Higuera and his co-authors, the University of Wyoming’s Bryan Shuman and University of Montana doctoral candidate Kyra Wolf, came up with a startling conclusion: The frequency of fire in high-elevation forest has shrunk from once every 230 years on average in the last two millennia to about 120 years during the current century.
Warm, dry conditions provide the overarching cause of increased burning in high-elevation forests.
“It isn’t unexpected to have more fire as temperatures rise,” co-author Wolf said. “Our records show that fire tracked past variations in climate just as it does today. What’s striking is that temperatures and correspondingly fire are now exceeding the range that these forests have coped with for thousands of years — largely as a result of human-caused climate change.”
This wasn’t necessarily unexpected, although the timing may be. For decades, scientists have predicted that climate warming will increase wildfire activity in high-elevation forests beyond the historical range of experience, said Higuera — who spoke in March at a session sponsored by Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop.
“It’s sobering to see that it’s clearly happening, and early in the 21st century — not in 2050, not in 2075, but in 2020,” he said.
Very limited tool box
We don’t know exactly how hot it will get. That’s partly because we don’t know whether the atmospheric pollution can be bent down. The rate of accumulating carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, has not abated in the 21st century even as the science around the risk has solidified.
We’re polluting the sky as if there were no tomorrow. The observatory located at an elevation of 11,135 feet at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa has documented the pollution of carbon dioxide. CO2 levels in 1958 stood at 320 parts per million, a relatively modest increase from preindustrial times. In 2013, the levels surpassed 400 ppm. This year it hit 420.
Staying in this fast lane, what temperatures will that produce in Breckenridge and other ski towns in Colorado? A study expected to be issued later in July will put a more definitive picture of that future heating in headwater communities.
A 2016 study along the northern Front Range by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization delivers a glimpse of that hotter future. Fourteen days with temperatures greater than 80 degrees were recorded during the late 20th century at a site in the foothills west of Boulder comparable in elevation to Aspen and Vail. This is projected to more than double in the next decade or two. By the time today’s toddlers reach retirement age, there will be 100 days.
“We will be hotter, and we will be drier,” said Stephen Saunders, a former undersecretary in the Department of the Interior who was the lead author of that study. “If you have increased temperature and the same amount of precipitation, you will indeed be drier.”
That observation was borne out recently by a PowerPoint presentation by Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist. The first slide shows standardized precipitation index for Colorado since 1900. There are periods of wet and periods of dry, including during the 21st century. But the standardized evaporation-transpiration chart — transpiration is what a plant “exhales” in response to heat — tells a very different story. There are no peaks in the 21st century, only valleys of drought. The warming atmosphere is absorbing moisture from the ground and from vegetation.
Measurements conducted by federal agencies at the Garfield County Airport in Rifle, on Hardscrabble Mountain near Eagle and in Summit counties, bear this out. One measure of the dryness, called the thousand-hour test, showed the moisture content in wood on hardscrabble dropping from 12% June 1 to just 8% at mid-month.
“From a wildfire behavior standpoint, you don’t necessarily like to see 8%,” said Ryan Hughes, a fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Five days later, the Sylvan Fire broke out south of Eagle.
Tom Veblen, a professor emeritus of forest ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied wildfires in Colorado from almost every angle: tree rings, lake deposits, journals of explorers and 19th century newspaper accounts. We know 1847 was a fiery year, and so was 1851. Also 1879, the year that Vail’s Back Bowls became mostly treeless, the result supposedly of “spite” fires set by Ute Indians, although the evidence is lacking, he said. It was a dry year, the only time fires in high-elevation forests spread, and fires and prospectors were everywhere — including, at that point, in the hamlet that soon became Aspen.
What annoys Veblen most is the phrase “healthy forests.” The metaphor, contained in the title of a 2004 federal law, powerfully draws on an analogy to human health. It also misleads in the context of high-elevation forests, Veblen said. It has also been misused, he said, to characterize blazes like the East Troublesome Fire.
Areas covered by East Troublesome included large swaths of trees killed by bark beetles during an epidemic of the last 25 years. If bark beetles always have been in a fandango with forests, they came on particularly strong with rising temperatures and drought in the 21st century. The argument has been made that those trees killed by beetles need to be removed to abate fire danger. Scientific studies in the past decade don’t leave that idea standing. One of them, by Sarah Hart and colleagues in 2015, found that prior beetle kill is not causing in increase in the extent or severity of fires of Western states.
“The fuels are the needles,” Veblen explains. “Once needles turn (red) and fall to the ground, to the forest floor, we actually have a decline in the ability of fires to spread through the crowns, through the canopy of the forest.
“What we are seeing is an increase in fire, yes, and an increase in bark beetle activity, both of which are driven by climate change, both driven by warmer conditions.
“Within the research community and also within the fire management community over the last five to 10 years, there has been a greater realization how all of those changes are being driven by climate change. But there is still a tendency to hold onto some of the old narrative.”
Thinning of forests, he said, has little value except in areas adjacent to communities and structures.
“The people in the fire mitigation business are very motivated to use the tools they have, but those tools are very, very limited,” he said.
Heat domes and climate change
There’s no escaping the rising temperatures. If the atmospheric emissions ended tomorrow, temperatures would continue rising for decades.
“That is baked into our system,” Veblen said.
“It’s just going to get hotter,” said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Udall co-authored a 2016 study that concluded roughly half of the drought in Colorado River Basin was explained by heat.
Colorado was hot in August 2020 when the Cameron Peak Fire broke out in the Medicine Bow Range north of Rocky Mountain National Park. Another fire, the Williams Fork, broke out about the same time in the area north of the Eisenhower Tunnel. For a time, those in Winter Park and Fraser worried that the fire might sweep across the Vasquez Range and make a run on their communities.
Another heat wave engulfed Colorado in September 2020, if nowhere near as intense as those of June, either in the Southwest or in the Pacific Northwest.
“Increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves are where probably the most robust connection exists between a warming climate and extreme weather,” said Schumacher, the state climatologist. “Numerous studies of heat waves in different parts of the world have shown that they have become much more likely. It takes a particular weather pattern to set up for something like this to happen (in this case, the very strong high pressure or heat dome), but all indications are that these situations are made more likely by climate change.”
Writing for The New York Times recently, former Roaring Fork Valley resident Susan Joy Hassol made the same point in an essay co-authored with climate scientist Michael Mann.
“Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming,” they wrote.
In Colorado, this shift in Colorado seems to be playing out by extending the “hot season,” Schumacher said.
The East Troublesome Fire fits in with that pattern of a lengthening wildfire season, 75 days longer than in the 1970s. It broke out Oct. 14, 2020, the last day of the first rifle-hunting season. It spread somewhat slowly from a remote area between Kremmling and Grand Lake for almost a week. Then on Oct. 20 came the winds, hot and fast, by some estimates 100 mph. It’s likely a miracle that only two lives were lost that evening, those of two elderly people who had chosen to shelter in place.
“When you get fire behavior like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop it,” one firefighter said. “That’s equivalent to trying to do something with a Category 5 hurricane.”
The wind and the heat picked up twigs, needles and pine cones and lofted them across the Continental Divide. Grand Lake escaped serious damage, likely the result of mitigation work done over the past decade. But lodgepole pine near the entrance to the national park just a few miles away testify to the heat and the winds, drooping like spaghetti.
Estes Park itself appeared sure to go up in flames as both the Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires approached. Sharon Brubaker, among the 6,700 residents of the community, didn’t wait to find out. She loaded her 2-year-old grandson into her car and fled, despite fears of another threat: COVID-19.
“It was a gut reaction,” Brubaker said. “I looked at the sky, and I knew that I needed to get out of here.”
Novak, the fire chief in Vail, had been working the Cameron Peak Fire, helping defend homes. When the flames came roaring at them, they abandoned the effort. That, he said, is the philosophy of firefighters in Vail and elsewhere. They will prep and leave, not stay and defend.
Later, talking to the Vail Town Council, Novak emphasized that Vail could easily see the same confluence of weather that caused East Troublesome’s extreme fire behavior. A fire starting in Eagle or Gypsum could roar up the valley through Vail and across Vail Pass into Summit County. That’s what happens in megafires — or a gigafire, as California’s first million-acre fire has been called.
Paul Cada helped protect the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park as the East Troublesome fire roared in.
“I saw what extreme fire looks like when it was coming into Estes Park,” he said.
Since 2014, Cada has worked in Vail as the town’s wildland program manager. It has been his job very fundamentally to prepare Vail for fire.
Vail, like other mountain communities, has evolved what it considers a mountain aesthetic. Wooden shake shingles, long a manifestation of that aesthetic, were banned on new housing in 2007. In 2020, the town adopted a new wildfire plan. Newer building codes require masonry exteriors and frown on decks that could be ignited by embers thrown from a mile away, as occurred in East Troublesome.
Some changes have been painful, facing opposition. One of them significantly discourages use of vegetation amid houses, including rows of trees that might catch on fire. Houses need strong fire-resistant berths of 30 to 60 feet.
A former Forest Service ranger likened Vail’s response at one time of wanting to fire-proof the forest so that houses could be put amid the trees. Now, there’s a new approach — one that doesn’t totally preclude fire but can improve the odds of protecting homes.
“You don’t necessarily have to control extreme fire behavior to prevent significant loss to a community,” he said. “What you do need to do is prepare the community for that, and that’s really the approach we are taking in Vail. We are not necessarily able to stop or even control the extreme fire behavior that we will likely see one day. It’s about making sure our community is prepared to respond to it when it happens but also be able to bounce back as quickly as possible.”
Vail has been aggressively trying to reduce fire risk along its flanks as well as in its subdivisions. Even so, both Cada and Novak emphasize the limits of their work. It will not preclude extreme fires. The right combination of hot days and drought — well, that’s when megafires happen.
Jerry Fedrizzi and his wife, Jan, have taken the onus of personal responsibility to heart. They grew up in Glenwood Springs, have lived in Eagle since 1968, but have a cabin at about the 8,300-foot elevation above Glenwood Springs. The days of 30 below in Eagle have become distant memories, he said on a hot June day while describing his continued work to remove vegetation from around their cabin. A fire official who studied their work gave them a 90% favorable rating, he reported proudly.
The temperature in Eagle was predicted to hit 97 degrees the next day, an unprecedented mark, and the wind was “just awful,” he said.
Not one prone to despair, Fedrizzi was nonetheless troubled.
“It’s grim,” he said. “And I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 to 20 years.”
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