The Perfect Firestorm: An Interview with Author Michael Kodas

Waldo Canyon Fire
Two weeks ago, as fires burned to the north and south of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I attended a couple of talks at the Aspen Environment Forum about wildfires. On the drive home, my husband and I passed a new fire burning near Leadville, Colo. — and about two minutes after seeing a helicopter dump water on the mountainside, I watched some dude throw his lit cigarette butt out the window of his car. The next day, back in Boulder, as I sat eating gelato with a friend, she suddenly pointed at the mountains behind me.

I turned to see brown smoke filling the sky from a mountain on the west side of town. It seemed as though all of Colorado was going up in flames, including Boulder. Thankfully, firefighters were able to control the Flagstaff fire well before it got out of hand. That wasn’t the case in Colorado Springs or north of Fort Collins, where hundreds of people lost their homes and thousands of acres burned to the ground.

I called my friend Michael Kodas, an award-winning journalist and photographer who’s writing a book called Megafire (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014). At least now, I thought, he wouldn’t have to go very far to do the reporting. With the Front Range fires fully contained (though likely to burn through the summer), but with our skies still smoky from new fires in Wyoming and Montana, I plied Michael with some strong IPA and got him to tell me everything I needed to know about our blazing forests.

HR: You’re writing this book on wildfires. Presumably you weren’t surprised by all the recent fires—but perhaps you weren’t expecting them to hit so close to home? What was your reaction when the fires started across Colorado?

MK: I thought it would happen here [on the Front Range] because everything was lined up. I’ve had a number of interviews with fire managers and people who work with wildfire who have said that what they’re afraid of is a bunch of small to medium fires simultaneously across Colorado, and particularly across the Front Range.

So people had actually predicted that this would happen?

People had expressed fear that this would happen.

To help me think about all these fires, I divide the problem into three basic causes. The first is forest management, which would include everything from excess fire suppression, to logging that leaves a lot of slash on the ground, to planting trees. Ways we utilize the forest that make it more flammable.

The second is development, the fact that we have such a huge boom of population into the forest. You have a lot more human-influenced fires. And you also have a lot of resource that has to be protected. With the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Bush plan that was supposed to make the forests more resilient to fire and also help communities protect themselves, they created all these grants for community wildfire protection plans. And communities across Colorado took advantage of these grants to put together these plans. But the implementation has not been nearly as good because the money ran out—it paid for the plans, but it didn’t pay for the actual work.

One of the points made by Headwaters Economics, a think-tank in Montana, and others is that the primary funder of a lot of these initiatives is usually the homebuilders association, and what they want is to be able to justify developing farther into the “wooey.”

Sorry, what’s the wooey?

The wildland-urban interface.

Ah. The WUI. I’ve never heard it said like that.

Oh yes, it’s the best part of writing a book like this, you get to say “wooey” all the time.

Anyway, part of a story I just did dealt with how we’ve had more than 100,000 people move into Colorado’s red zone, which is the most flammable forests, since the Hayman fire in 2002. By the way, the day of the big blowup in the High Park fire outside of Fort Collins was 10 years to the day from the big blowup of the Hayman fire.

You have this development issue. With more people moving into the forest, having fireproof homes doesn’t lower the cost. You still have to fight the fires. You’ve still got power lines and reservoirs and all kinds of other kinds of resources you have to protect.

You still don’t want the fire in your neighborhood.

Right. You’re still going to be putting it out. Which speaks to the first problem, management. You’re still going to be suppressing fires that need to burn, so you’re still going to end up with a fuel problem, with a lot of fuel around these communities.

Then the final cause is climate. That’s the wild card, and that’s the one that came down this year. By June we had 2 percent of normal snowpack in the high country. Streams dry up earlier, forests dry up earlier, the forest is flammable earlier. There are areas of the West and Colorado where it’s been documented that the fire season actually starts about two months earlier. Hence the Lower North Fork fire, which was the first or second day of spring and was incredibly volatile.

So those are the three categories of causes. [To recap: management, development, climate change.]

I was in Estes Park climbing when the fire there broke out. I’d taken a day off, had a buddy who wanted to go climbing. It was hot, so we thought we’d go up there.

I feel like I should stay away from you because a fire is going to break out.

I get that from people. I was with two rangers who showed up–one of them knew a friend of mine who’s a hotshot–so we’re chatting, and then their radio squawks that there’s a fire and it’s crowning and there are homes nearby. So these guys packed up their stuff to run out.

How far from the fire were you?

Probably five miles as the crow flies, but a two-hour walk.

The point I want to make is that those three categories all came together this year, and that’s what wildfire people are afraid of. The Estes Park fire was a wire that rubbed raw against a tree in the really high winds. It’s in the high country, which dried out months before it should have, so it’s just bone dry up there when they normally would’ve had snow on the ground. And you had this series of 100 degree days, really hot. So it all came together in these fires.

I was involved with reporting on four of these Front Range fires in a single day. And it’s illustrative to me of this is what they’re afraid of. You throw all your resources at Estes Park, only you’re a long way away from Colorado Springs, or Boulder. So you have four fires that are really volatile, and all of them are threatening property.

How much did that stress our resources?

The feds are claiming they’ve got enough resources. But the various incident commanders are worried. They’ve complained a little, not a lot, and they’ve all said that they got what they needed when they needed it. But we were already at one quarter the amount of contracted air power to fight wildfires that we had 10 years ago. If you’re an incident commander looking at these huge megafires and seeing that our air power is a fraction of what it was a decade ago, you would be worried. I would be worried.

There’s also argument that we rely too much on air power. Air tankers can’t put the fire out. They can try to guide it. But it’s still firefighters that have to go in there and stomp this thing out. They seem to have enough bodies to throw at these fires. But it’s a military operation. It’s like fighting a war on multiple fronts.

And now we’re just at the start of what would normally be the fire season?

We’re finally getting the monsoon rains. But we have not had anywhere near the amount of rain we normally have. Instead we get these dry thunderstorms. A storm that comes through may be a storm that is going to dump a ton of rain—which is great if you have a fire that just got started, but bad if you have a fire that just got put out because then you’re going to have flash floods. In the Waldo Canyon fire, they simultaneously had red flag fire alerts and flash flood alerts.

The real concern is this super-thin snowpack. Because the high country forests are so dry, they can get these huge fires in the lodgepole pine forests up there where you’ve got a lot of beetle-kill and a lot of fuel. Those fuel moisture levels are much lower than normal. And that can be a problem right through the fire season. These monsoon rains aren’t going to correct the moisture deficit. It might help put out a fire but won’t help make the fuel moister.

To what extent do you think the beetle-kill trees are involved in the fires? If you’ve got a bone-dry forest that has no moisture in it, it doesn’t seem like it would make a difference whether it’s beetle-kill or not.

The relationship is really complicated. In a lodgepole forest that’s been affected by beetles, you’ve got green trees, red trees that still have needles on but are dead, and then you’ve got grey trees. The common feeling has been if we can just get through the red phase, you’re away from the immediate threat because those fires don’t crown [spread through the treetops] if they don’t have needles.

Some people I talked to said they saw that in the High Park fire, but there hasn’t been an investigation of it. It’s just from firefighters and incident commanders I spoke to. They said when it got to the grey forest it slowed down, and when it was in a red forest it ripped.

But a lodgepole pine forest has evolved to go down in these huge stand-reducing events, and when they’re dry like they are now I don’t think it’ll make that much difference if it’s a beetle-kill or a live tree.

I think what people are really afraid of is 10 years from now. Those trees die, they haven’t burned, they fall on the ground, and now the new trees have grown up. So you’ve got this potential for a really intense ground fire with a crown fire burning above it.

One of the problems is it’s so hard to do the treatments that were planned. It’s so hard to get prescribed burning done. It’s become so restrictive, there’s so much resistance from the public. So lots of times you have a plan that requires cutting the trees down and then burning them. And they just don’t.

The treatments themselves can have unintended consequence. It’s a catch-22 for these managers, because they have got to reduce the fuel load somehow. The prescribed burn that really went out of control was the one that threatened Los Alamos in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire. It was a National Park Service prescribed burn that went out of control, burned a bunch of homes [over 400] in the community of Los Alamos and threatened a nuclear laboratory.

Fuels from treatments were also implicated in the Fourmile Canyon fire. I think the figure was like 83 percent of the homes that burned there were burned by ground fires. A lot of that ground fuel was from people that had thinned their property and had these slash piles, but there’s no efficient way to get it out of there.

I wonder about that all the time when I see these big slash piles on people’s property. I always wonder, what exactly are they going to do with those?

You have to do something. There’s a researcher at Colorado State University who has said, When these fuels are on the ground, are we just moving the fuel around? Have we just turned one hazard into another hazard?

Let’s talk about the climate component. To what degree is climate change playing a role? The media coverage seems to have either portrayed it as the primary cause or ignored it.

Yeah, isn’t that the way it is? You’re either a crusader for climate or you try to ignore it? Or you’re like I was for a long time, a journalist that doesn’t understand it well enough to write it, so you’re scared of the topic?

I think climate change is seen as playing a huge role. The really thin snowpack, all these dry lightning storms that came through when we’d normally be getting afternoon rain, the high temperatures. When the Waldo Canyon fire really blew up, it was the fifth straight day of over-100 degree temperatures for Denver. The heat played a huge role.

Steve Running [a climate scientist at the University of Montana] points out that the heat has two other impacts. It increases evaporation so the fuel is that much dryer. And the temperatures stay warm at night. When the temperature drops below 70, and certainly below 60, it really slows a fire down. Wildfires tend to lay down at night. But the fires have stayed super active through the night. Many of the houses that burned in Colorado Springs burned at night. Fires can draw a huge amount of energy when temperatures stay above 70 at night.

So high temperatures at night, drought, a weak snow year, very volatile weather—the winds have been crazy this year—all those things can be attributed to the volatility you get from climate change.

Does all of this keep you up at night? I know when the Flagstaff Fire hit, I was like, am I going have to evacuate my house? How does it affect you?

I saw that fire as a nuisance. Boulder is not going to let that happen. It’s far more fire-wise, has more defensible space than a lot of communities. No, the thing that keeps me up at night is the same thing that keeps a lot of journalists up at night: Did I spell that person’s name right? Did I get that quote right? [laughs]

Yeah, but are you worried about the long-term impacts of this, as someone who lives here?

Yeah. What concerns me long term is it’s a wicked problem, and our policymakers are really bad at dealing with wicked problems. Fires are this irregular disaster, you have a really bad year and it goes away, and people have really short memories. We never seem to respond to this problem and it’s worse every time it comes back.

One thing to keep in mind is we’ve yet to have a fire that’s of the size of the Hayman, but we’ve had two now that radically exceeded the property damage. So it strikes me that we’re a lot more vulnerable than we were ten years ago.

And a lot of that is because, as you said, people are moving into the WUI.

Right. The WUI.

Is there anything else you want to mention that we didn’t cover?

No. I don’t even need to write the book now. You can just publish your blog.

Photo credits
Waldo Canyon fire: Don Savage Photography, via Flickr
Michael Kodas: Michael Kodas

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