When the Missionary Ridge Fire erupted in June 2002, it was hardly a surprise. Conditions in Southwest Colorado and across the West were tinder-box dry and warnings had been issued far and wide about taking great care with any potential fire source. Still, the speed and scope that the Missionary Ridge Fire took on was difficult to anticipate, respond to and recover from. Its impacts are still felt today and will be for decades to come.
Throughout the 39 days that the fire gripped the region’s attention and resources, it consumed nearly 73,000 acres, including 56 homes. One firefighter lost his life. The skies were darkened and thick with smoke. The combined effect was nothing short of devastating. But it was also an uplifting example of a far-flung community coming together to respond to a disaster in the best way possible: supporting and appreciating the fire crews that took such great risk to battle the blaze and taking in and meeting the needs of those displaced by the fire. It was deeply moving to see the community rally to counter the shock that the fire wrought for so many in the area. By providing a network of support, residents, responders and volunteers helped recharge the depleted energy that so many felt during the fire’s intense tenure.
Once it was extinguished, the Missionary Ridge Fire was far from done affecting the region. Erosion problems and unstable snags made for mitigation and emergency response challenges all their own. Homes were flooded and inundated with mud. Trails and public lands were full of dangers for visitors: Falling trees and mudslide potential posed real risks. Awareness and mitigation were key in the early months after the fire.
They continue to be today. Homeowners and fire specialists are working together to stave off the risks that caused so much destruction during the Missionary Ridge Fire.
Education about the importance of thinning vegetation and removing fuels has become far more widespread in areas prone to damage from wildfire, and the impacts of Missionary Ridge drove that lesson home.
As conditions this year are alarmingly similar to those in 2002, the challenges and lessons taught by the Missionary Ridge Fire should be on the forefront of all our minds heading into the summer. They are lessons best not learned twice.