Denver Post Coverage of High Park Fire

over the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, CO. Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post

Check out the stories, videos and photos in the Post today. Including “getting more tankers is needed” here,
and “slurry is bad for the environment but continues to be used” here by Bruce Finley.

So far this fire season, air tankers called to suppress wildfires have been dropping the fire retardants (the mix is called LC95A) at a record pace. As of Friday, more than 401,450 gallons had been dropped on Colorado forests this year, including 320,553 gallons on the lightning-sparked High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins, according to Forest Service records.

As it burns along the Cache la Poudre River — designated a Wild and Scenic River by the Forest Service — the High Park fire could overlap habitat for several species of sensitive fish.

Massive fish kills have been documented after fires were put out in northwestern states. A legal challenge by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics compelled an environmental impact study. Federal biologists concluded that fire retardants alone will not cause extinctions. But the lawsuit led to issuance of the rules this year to minimize harm.

Laye said pilots and ground crews working west of Fort Collins are complying with the rules.

Forest Service fire managers this week acknowledged concerns about toxic fire retardants degrading habitat and watersheds.

Yet the agency also relies increasingly on slurry bombers to protect houses and firefighters from potentially catastrophic wildfires, Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.

“Many wildfires burn in remote, rugged areas, and the application of fire retardant can slow the spread of a fire until ground forces can reach the area and begin construction of a fireline,” Segin said. “You can put it on homes. It works better on the ground. It slows the advance of a fire so that ground crews can get in there.”

Firefighters reaching mountain houses also spray chemical foams and wrap smaller structures with “fire shelter” material designed to repel flames. If there are ponds nearby, water pumps are set up to douse flames.

Some homeowners have rigged sprinkler systems. Firefighters also often haul away firewood and trim surrounding trees, rushing to create “defensible spaces.”

The federal government push to make more air tankers available to suppress western wildfires is likely to mean more use of fire-retardant chemicals.

Federal data show that, since 2007, air tankers have dropped an average of 486,385 gallons of fire retardant a year while suppressing wildfires in Colorado, where drought and overly dense forests favor large wildfires.

The Forest Service has been using retardant since the 1950s. These chemicals don’t douse flames as water does. Instead, the retardants cool and coat fuels, depleting fire of oxygen and slowing combustion as retardant salts change how fuels burn. Air tankers target houses and power grids.

This week, fire commanders loaded fire retardants into helicopters, which normally drop up to 900 gallons of water. A layer of retardant can slow fire for about two hours.

However, it was helicopters dropping water on flare-ups this week that saved two homes in the thick of the High Park fire, Segin said. “Like a military operation, it’s a combination of ground and air power coming together at a single point to suppress the fire.”

The maps designating sensitive terrain around Colorado apparently prioritize habitat for greenback cutthroats and the butterflies that live in riparian corridors — two species deemed most vulnerable to the fire-retardant chemicals.

Federal biologists would welcome development of better chemical mixes that could be less harmful and also meet firefighters’ needs, Laye said. “You obviously could use water anytime you would like.”

Here’s my favorite equine interest story.

Note from Sharon: I invite you to browse the Denver Post site and check the coverage. As I’ve said before, I bet fire policy seems different if you are in a part of the country that experiences it. It’s interesting to consider if there would be a difference if this was coverage by the NY Times or LA Times or Washington Post, and if local people there were breathing the smoke and having bad air days (to be sure, that does happen in LA, but national policy is not made there). At church today, there were prayers for the firefighters and evacuees but also the folks who are having trouble breathing in Fort Collins. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that my work world only vaguely interfaces with the people I deal with outside of work (when are campgrounds open) but fire here is as omnipresent as the air we breath. That makes reactions to policies as visceral as (we often debate here) cerebral.

On another topic, no one seems to be saying that aerial tactics are “immoral”; in fact, the concern is quite the opposite- that we don’t have enough capacity for this fire season.

Finally, I see a pattern in “environment” reporting- some technology (solar panels, fire retardant) has environmental impacts (as do all technologies, and pretty much all human and non-human actions), so people are interviewed who point out the problems. One wonders whether any technology would have an appropriate level of impact based on the values of some. Further, I think it’s interesting that we seem to have articles discussing these impacts at different frequencies for different technologies. For example, having read may pieces recently about cool new technologies in health care, I seldom see a companion piece on the environmental effects. It’s something to perhaps become more aware of.

8 thoughts on “Denver Post Coverage of High Park Fire”

  1. Here is what we are still up against, from the comments:

    “Tumultuous wrote:Let it “BURN BABY BURN” too bad if peoples property is in danger. The risks to how many millions of people where the poisons are absorbed into their bodies is worth it how? Let mother nature takes its course and let the fires wipe out the beetle killed areas too. People who live in the mountains make that choice full well knowing what may take place.”

    However, I am glad that the public is shown the mindset of such people.

    Reply
  2. Sharon, thanks for summarizing some of the Denver Post coverage. Good to see there’s some vigorous environmental reporting along with the disaster coverage.

    Did any of the stories address the pattern of exurban development that put so many people and so much property in harm’s way? Seems to me that, when a fire burns more than a quarter of the structures in an area, it might raise some fundamental questions of whether those development patterns are sustainable in fire-adapted ecosystems.

    To your observations on environmental reporting: It is a pattern, and a healthy pattern, because throughout history, technological advancements, starting with railroads (probably even before that) have both been hailed as progress toward a better future or a step toward the end of the world. Usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    Nanotech is one area where I’ve noticed that pattern. Often, new advances are touted for medical or environmental benefits, but it takes longer to document negative environmental impacts, and by the time that happens, the use of the materials is often already firmly entrenched. That’s a problem.

    LED Christmas lights is another example that comes to mind, since I reported on that. There are a lot of energy savings associated with using LED lights, but long-term research is now showing that they may contribute significant pollution to the environment when discarded.

    Reply
    • Bob- People have been talking about “whether exurban development should exist in fire-prone landscapes” and “who should pay for fire protection in those areas” for many years. I remember when I worked for Congresswoman Meek in 1995, discussions were going on with insurance companies as to how the feds and they could share responsibilities and these were clearly not the initiation of the discussion.

      Perhaps it’s true that people shouldn’t develop in fire prone areas, but perhaps this should be equally true of flood- prone or tornado- prone or earthquake- prone areas.

      What intrigues me about the environmental reporting is not what is covered but what is not covered. For example, there was a great deal of resistance (and as far as I know still is) to any form of regulation of nanotechnology outside the scientific community. Yet I only found articles about that in Science, perhaps, if anywhere.

      I agree that all technologies should have some form of life-cycle environmental (and social) analysis prior to going public from a (truly) independent third party so that people can make reasoned decisions. It’s just that the actual doing of this seems to occur randomly (and I find it interesting what environmental groups choose to target and not.)

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  3. I’ve been gone, but if no one has yet asked, I will: How much per slurry run? How much per helicopter water drop? In addition to the photo featured here, I wandered through the “slide show” on the Denver Post site, here: http://photos.denverpost.com/mediacenter/2012/06/photos-high-park-wildfire-burning-out-of-control-evacuation-notifications-sent/37355/ I was struck by what seemed to be a hell of an ineffective way to protect “structures,” dousing homes with helicopter water drops and the slurry-drop picture above. Better to set up some mandatory requirements for home construction, some guidelines for “defensible space” and some safeguards so that federal and state agencies don’t feel obligated to spend federal and state monies (lots of it–particularly when aircraft are involved) protecting individual private property sites. PS.. I didn’t have the same heartburn when I saw a county pumper truck near a private residence in one photo. I accept that level of public protection for private property. But this other? I consider it to be hugely wasteful.

    Reply
    • I have wondered the same things (but not enough to do any real research).

      I recall sitting on a couch with some friends in Europe several years ago watching a news report about a wildland fire burning through homes in the US, and one of my friends turned to me and asked “why don’t you build less flammable houses?” I was young, and hadn’t ever thought about building less flammable houses at that point, so I didn’t have an answer. I doubt many politicians have thought about building less flammable homes either, but I wish they would. I suppose I could write a few letters…

      I am heartened to see the defensible space concept now being embraced by many in my neck of the woods. This is a big change from even ten years ago.

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    • Dave- I spent Sunday afternoon at the car wash and sat next to the partner of a county employee who was, according to her, building moats around houses and running water through them, watering the houses and doing last-minute defensible space fuel treatments.

      To me, although I am not a taxpayer in that county, that is also excessive.

      As I mentioned to Bob, above, this discussion has been going on for years…perhaps we have enough momentum to make some policy changes at this time.

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      • The sad thing is that some people continually blame the burned out residents for living where they live. What if your family has lived in the same spot for generations, and the public forests around their homes have turned from widely-scattered old growth to thickets of flammable small trees? At this point it DOESN’T MATTER how it got that way, just that those are the current conditions.

        Let’s try a parallel situation. You live in an urban area, and thugs invade your part of town. Do you do nothing and say that crime is “natural” in urban areas? Or, do you do SOMETHING (maybe controversial, or “illegal”) to mitigate the crime?

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  4. I hope and suspect that, if this global climate change continues to generate extreme wildfire conditions, the “market” will help us in the right direction. Such as fire insurance rates that float upward in fire-prone areas, particularly for residences that are not properly fire-proofed. Of course, for millionaires who can afford to build these mega-mansions in these areas (as well on storm-torn Atlantic beaches), this higher premium is nothing but a nuisance. They will insure themselves and rebuild and rebuild. Why these newer WUI dwellers can’t learn and understand their risk, and invest dollars in proper construction and site planning is a mystery to me. That is why very stringent local fire construction codes are needed, and the county/city personnel to inspect and enforce the codes.
    We know the problem. Why should I (and you) continue to finance this exceeding high cost of aerial fire-fighting when those folks down there in the trees, at the end of a steep mountain road and cul-de-sac, with horses and dogs and kids, in houses of wood and flammable roofs live the “good life” at our expense? It makes no sense at all. None.

    Reply

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