Fire season

‘Open for business,’ yes, but wildfire may now be a regular part of life in Colorado

Colorado has long been quite properly known for its seasons and their unique qualities. Beyond spring, fall, summer and winter – all of which are spectacular in their own way – we have more specialized descriptions such as ski season, tourist season and hunting season. It may now be time to recognize that we also have a fire season.

Acknowledging that could have a number of benefits, chief among them being the simple fact that it is always better to align one’s expectations with reality. And given the facts on the ground, we can expect wildfires to be part of life in this state in the future.

Unlike ski season or the fall colors, it is hard to see how anyone could market fire season. Wildfire is hardly a spectator sport. (Although, it is interesting that the now-evacuated town of South Fork has a classified ad in the Herald for a “marketing/visitor center director.”)

But acknowledging something is not the same as promoting it. Fire season has become such a regularly recurring phenomenon that its existence is hard to argue. We would be better served not by speculating about what to do if fires break out, but by planning for how to cope when they occur.

The West Fork fires are being driven in part by the large stands of trees that have been killed by bark beetles, which have flourished as winters have grown warmer. The U.S. Forest Service says it has also seen the varieties of trees that make up the forests changing as species previously found at lower elevations make their way higher up. Through time, the nature of forests will change, and fire will be one of the principle catalysts.

Our response to this cannot be one of pure antagonism. Not only are fires, such as the West Fork Complex, far too large simply to put out, they are part of a larger whole. In the context of the forest, there is good reason to let them do their work. Firefighters can and should protect lives and, to the extent they can without unduly endangering themselves, try to save structures. But with warmer, drier winters and widening beetle infestations, the forests are going to burn.

What we can do is make defensible space around homes and other structures an integral part of landscaping and design. Rather than an afterthought or a homeowner’s chore along the lines of mowing the grass, perhaps creating and ensuring that space should become a community responsibility like building codes or emergency services. After all, the biggest danger to one person’s home could be a neighbor’s house in flames.

We can also rethink where and how we build. That 500 homes were destroyed in the Black Forest Fire earlier this month was a colossal human tragedy. But it cannot be ignored that their loss had a lot to do with the fact that a great many of those homes were, in fact, built in a forest. That may no longer be an option.

Beside public policy, recognizing fire season could also point us in the right direction for our own thinking. Colorado’s official state motto is “nil sine numine” – nothing without the deity – which is a fine sentiment. In contemplating fire season, however, what may be more apt is Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer asking for the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to know the difference.

The annual arrival of fire season can be expected to test all three.