2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

The “undocumented and unprecedented” West Fork fire. What does that mean?

Published: June 25, 2013, 3:02 pm, by Ryan Handy

On Friday, Eric Morgan made national headlines when he claimed that the ravenous West Fork Complex fire is “undocumented and unprecedented.”

That night, the fire was expected to burn into the town of South Fork, and consume it entirely.  It has yet to do that, but Morgan’s statement, as a fire behavior analyst, continues to be quoted.

How can the West Fork fire be the most extreme fire we’ve ever seen, the kind that has never been documented?

The answer is:  It can’t be, because it isn’t.

I spoke with Eric Morgan (whose comments have been erroneously circulated under the name Eric Norton) and asked him to clarify what he meant.

The West Fork fire, a complex of four separate fires, is the largest fire in known history in that part of Colorado. It is also unusual because it is burning at high elevations, between 10,000 and 11,000 feet,  something the region has also not seen before, Morgan said.

The fire’s behavior has been extreme for several reasons, namely the heat, the wind, and the dry,  dead  Spruce forest it is burning through. 

An unfortunate chain of natural events led to these extreme conditions–most importantly the ten-year drought plaguing the area and the mass death of Spruce trees where the fire is burning.

In the past three years, the south central Rockies–including the La Veta, Canon City and Walsenburg areas–have been heavily hit by a Spruce beetle infestation, Morgan explained. Drought weakens trees, making them prime targets for the beetle, which burrows into the trees, cutting off their circulation and main method of getting water and nutrients from the ground.

“In the last three years, we’ve had a Spruce beetle epidemic, which has wiped out nearly 80 percent of the trees in this area,” Morgan said.

The fire is burning through these dead trees–which extend for thousands of acres–that have been drying for years. This is the first fire to burn through this particular area of beetle-kill, as well.

The West Fork fire is what Morgan calls a 200 to 300 year event–meaning, that’s how often this sort of fire happens in the South Fork area. Hence why this kind of fire is undocumented in the area–mankind (at least, in South Fork, Del Norte, and Creede) has never seen the like of this fire.  But that doesn’t mean that, 200 or 300 years ago, a similar fire didn’t happen, long before mankind was capable of documenting it.

But without that documentation, the last major fire to burn in the area was the Lime Creek fire of 1879, which burned 26,000 acres–only a fraction of the West Fork fire. West Fork is now over 70,000 acres.

The West Fork fire maybe extreme in many ways, but all ways that firefighters have seen before. The joining of multiple fires–that happened in Yellowstone, in 1988. The beetle-kill, that has happened as well. The heat and the wind–Waldo Canyon fire experienced both of those. Nor is it  largest fire–the Hayman fire of 2002 remains the biggest in Colorado history after it burned around 138,ooo acres.

At its peak, the West Fork fire was funneled by winds through drainages, and consumed dead Spruce trees and their highly-combustible red needles, “which made it burn like a fast moving grass fire…except it’s in big timber,” Morgan said.

No part of the fire is contained by humans, and instead it is being boxed in by landscape.

The West Fork consumed the driest fuels in the area, and moved on to burn other types of vegetation, such as Aspen trees, that have helped the fire to calm down, Morgan said. Still, days after its start, the fire is still uncontained.  It is also burning through steep mountain terrain, that firefighters cannot access.