Residents in Summit County and other areas of the wildland-urban interface live under the risk of wildfires much of the year. In this four-part series, we explore how historical policies have contributed to modern fire danger and dive into the science, firefighting tactics and perceptions of what the future of wildfires might look like.

This series published in the summer of 2020.

Playing with fire

How a history of mining, suppression and climate change has fueled a new generation of wildfires
One moment, the forest is calm. Tree branches sway gently back and forth in the early afternoon wind as heat from the summer sun drenches the crown and understory growing below. It’s been hot, and over the past few months, the moisture from the winter snowfall has run its course and the morning dew condensed on the grass has dissipated on the forest floor.

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Anatomy of a wildfire

How fuel sources, weather and topography influence wildfire behavior
On the surface, wildfires seem simple. There’s a spark, a few small twigs flare up, and it spreads throughout a forest landscape until it runs its course or is doused by firefighters. In the United States alone, we see it tens of thousands of times a year, from relatively innocuous burns deep in the wilderness — that most people won’t even hear about — to violent blazes along the…

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On the front lines

How firefighters combat wildfires
Wildfires can be enigmatic. Fire officials are well aware of the variables that dictate how a wildfire will behave: the moisture levels in fuel sources that have been adapting to changes in the climate, the direction and speed of the wind, and the severity of slopes along the landscape. But even the slightest change in conditions can alter a fire’s path and intensity, creating…

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The future of wildfires

A cultural struggle to learn to live with fire
The future of wildfires doesn’t have to be calamitous or tragic. There are factors at play that point to a bad ending. The results of ongoing climate change and a history of questionable land-management policies are already impacting the kinds of wildfires we’re seeing today, often more frequent and more intense. But much is being done to brighten the outlook. Fire scientists are working to…

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