JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Missionary Ridge Fire
Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series about the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire.
The conditions were perfectly aligned:
La Plata County was in an extreme drought. Very little snowpack covered the local peaks. The forests were full of dense, dry vegetation ready to burn.
All it took was a spark, and a blaze tore through the county, destroying 72,962 acres, 56 homes and taking one life.
And it could all happen again; all it would take is another spark.
The combination of another extremely dry winter, budget cuts to fire districts' manpower and equipment and the mixed results of efforts to minimize fire danger have officials on edge.
“We're worried now the way we were worried in 2002 before the Missionary Ridge Fire,” said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County's Office of Emergency Management.
A dry winter
This past winter was the second consecutive year of La Niña conditions, an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon characterized by unusually cold water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that affects climate across the globe. Although it often leads to wetter weather in some parts of the United States, it typically results in warmer, drier weather in southern Colorado.
Since 1900, only 11 back-to-back La Niña winters have been recorded, and the second year usually is drier than the first, according to Craig Goodell, a fire mitigation and education specialist at the San Juan Public Lands Office.
The winter leading up to the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire was also a La Niña winter, but it was only the first year and didn't last for a second, Goodell said. The current lack of moisture in the southwestern United States is leading La Plata County into a moderate drought.
Currently, the region's snowpack is only about 16 percent of the norm after high temperatures and dust caused rapid melting this spring.
The lack of moisture means vegetation will dry out more quickly and be primed to burn if a fire starts.
Area forests and vegetation look green now, but fire officials say it won't last much longer. High temperatures and strong winds are drying out the vegetation quicker than normal, said Rich Graeber, the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District chief.
“Everything is looking pretty lush, but with the temperature and winds we've gotten, this green-up is not going to last very much longer,” Graeber said in a recent interview.
The drying process started a month early because of the lack of moisture, which means the fire season also has started a month early, Knowlton said.
“All of the data leads down to the fact that we're just ever so slightly better off right now than we were this time of year in 2002,” Goodell said. “We've got a pretty good green-up based on that little bit of moisture in the winter. We didn't have that in 2002, but that's really the only difference.”
A problem 100 years in the making
The energy stored up in the forest's vegetation will burn hot and quick if a fire ignites. It has been building up since 1910 when the U.S. Forest Service started suppressing every fire, said Scott Dehnisch, assistant handcrew supervisor for the Columbine Ranger District.
The Great Fire of 1910, which started the suppression era, burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana and killed 87 people.
“We thought at that time that fire was bad, and we needed to put them out,” Goodell said.
That took fire – a natural part of the ecosystem that releases stored energy in the forest and allows it to grow new vegetation – out of the cycle and caused the current buildup of old vegetation.
The buildup has fueled the large, catastrophic fires the country has seen more of in recent years. If the conditions align, it doesn't matter how many firefighters are fighting a blaze. They won't get it contained until the conditions change, Goodell said.
The buildup also helped the Missionary Ridge Fire burn as quickly and last as long as it did.
“All it takes is an ignition starter and it can happen again,” he said.
Fire officials say to reverse these huge fires, natural fires need to be reintroduced and homeowners need to mitigate – limit the fire hazard around their homes – to save their homes when a fire does come through.
Some mitigation work and education about natural fires is in place.
Firewise Southwest Colorado was formed in June 2003 after Durango Fire & Rescue Authority hosted a national workshop following the Missionary Ridge Fire for people concerned about the fuels buildup in Southwest Colorado.
Firewise was established to help educate residents and has since established the Neighborhood Ambassador Program, where volunteers teach neighbors about protecting their homes. Volunteers contributed about 2,300 hours last year to clean up projects and mitigation, said Pam Wilson, program director for Firewise Southwest Colorado.
Firewise created two demonstration sites in La Plata County where residents can see what a mitigated property looks like. One of those is in the Rafter J subdivision.
Mitigating a home is like city residents mowing their lawns, Graeber said. It's necessary and should be considered general maintenance.
The Upper Pine Fire Protection District established an 11-person mitigation crew through grants the district received.
The crew mitigated about 300 acres last year and is working in the Forest Lakes subdivision. Wilson said Forest Lakes is the No. 1 high-risk subdivision in La Plata County because of the density of vegetation and number of people living there.
There are 1,300 occupied acres in the subdivision, and 700 to 800 acres need to be mitigated, Graeber said.
The mitigation crew is making progress, but Graeber said it has a long way to go.
“It's a lifelong project,” he said. “It's one subdivision at a time and one acre at a time.”
While some local residents are on board, a lot of public education is needed before fire crews can start more controlled burns, Dehnisch said.
The smoke controlled burns cause has residents worried and tourists staying away from the area. The state tells fire districts when they are allowed to burn, but that's only one component.
“Even if the state approved it, it would still be a huge public story and issue,” Dehnisch said. “We're working with the public to find out what they will accept. We're bringing them on board with small burns here and there and showing people the effects it has.”
A budget in crisis
While current moisture levels and the buildup of fuel may be causing the fires to grow, firefighters have fewer resources to combat major blazes.
After the fire seasons of 2000 and 2002, fire districts' budgets grew. Officials put that money to use in mitigation programs, but those funds are running out.
“Since (2000 and 2002), funding has slowly been decreasing every year,” Dehnisch said. “This year, at least on the ground level, it has been more noticeable than it ever has been before.”
Specific funding figures were unavailable.
But with fires getting bigger and bigger, fighting the blazes has become more expensive.
U.S. Forest Service suppression costs averaged $900 million annually from 2000 to 2005, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office Forest Service audit.
Fire districts also have less manpower and equipment. Only nine heavy air tankers are available this year, Graeber said.
Two additional heavy air tankers were available until one crashed in Utah on June 3, killing all the crew members. The other was damaged in an accident in Nevada.
Several heavy air tankers were taken out of service after the 2002 fire season when 44 air tankers were available because of safety concerns, Goodell said.
This also means less resources will be available to defend homes.
The funding problem is larger than just individual fire agencies. Firefighters are sent from all over the country to fight a major blaze, but large areas of the nation are facing dangers that are far above normal, according to the 2012 National Seasonal Assessment for the Western States, Alaska and Hawaii.
This means those areas will be competing for already limited resources if there are multiple fires.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, determines who gets what resources. The agency bases decisions on how many homes and people are in danger. It's all about doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Dehnisch said.
Seven heavy air tankers were fighting the Missionary Ridge Fire when the Hayman Fire broke out near Colorado Springs. The air tankers were sent to the Hayman Fire because it was burning homes, Knowlton said, making it more difficult to fight Durango's blaze.
That could happen again if multiple fires break out this summer, which officials say is likely.
“The conditions are aligning for a catastrophic fire,” Dehnisch said.