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.
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.
All of a sudden, there’s a spark. An ember drifts into a bed of fallen pine needles that have been piling up for decades, maybe centuries, under a clutter of downed trees and brush.
The fire will start small, spitting out wisps of black smoke and slowly singeing the ground around it. But the surrounding area is a seemingly endless supply of fuel and untapped energy that could erupt any at any moment into one of the most devastating forces on earth, capable of tearing through millions of acres of forested land — threatening homes, infrastructure and human lives — in a brilliant and terrifying display of destruction.
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 wildland-urban interface that can consume everything in their paths, leaving only scorched earth and melted metal behind.
But how exactly do wildfires happen, and what factors determine whether a fire will stay calm or burst into an unpredictable and uncontrollable force of nature?
In reality, the causes and effects of wildland fires are complex, rippling through a wide-ranging network of trees, brush and wildlife inside a forest and broadly impacting its ecology and biology. But to start, we’ll look at the chemistry involved.
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 an entirely new outlook on the situation as emergency workers rush to gather intelligence and adjust their suppression tactics.
For some firefighters, the dance serves as a reminder that what they’re up against is an uncompromising and devastating force of nature, and it isn’t to be underestimated.
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 create more ambitious modeling systems to predict wildfire behavior and provide officials with a better understanding of how fires function. Firefighters are experimenting with new technologies that will track resources and pinpoint hazards in real time, and developing better ways to enhance their suppression techniques.
As innovators work on creative solutions to deal with fires, others stress that one key to mitigating risk is more cultural: Can humans learn to better coexist with fire?