2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
  • What started the Black Forest fire? One rumor put to rest.

    Wed, July 10, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    I spent several hours out in the Black Forest on Tuesday, and heard from several residents a couple of pretty shocking rumors: That the Black Forest fire was started by flare guns. And, that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office had arrested three teenagers in connection with the fire’s start.

    This morning, Lt. Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, debunked these rumors. “I can assure you that’s not true,” he said of both the flare gun and arrest stories I heard.

    The sheriff’s office has made no arrests in connection with the fire’s start on June 11.  The Black Forest fire went on to become the state’s most destructive wildfire, which destroyed 486 homes, killed two people and burned over 14,000 acres. There has been no official announcement of the cause.


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

    Tue, June 25, 2013 by Ryan Handy with 4 comments

    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.


  • Where’s that smoke coming from?

    Tue, June 11, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    That’s right, you guessed it–the haze blurring the Front Range horizon is from wildfire smoke.

    The smoke appears to be from three fires in New Mexico, according to smoke detection maps from the National Weather Service. It could also be coming from a blaze that started this morning near the Royal Gorge–read more about that here

    Take a look at where the smoke is moving:

    Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.31.39 PM


    The smoke pattern should change throughout the day, so keep checking this website for updates. 

    The National Weather Service has also issued a Red Flag warning for much of Colorado. That means that we are in “critical fire conditions”–so high temperatures, high winds…all in all, tinder-box conditions. Red Flag warnings are issued on a daily basis; take a look at today’s warning, below.

    Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 1.50.06 PM

  • Teller County burn ban in effect

    Fri, May 31, 2013 by Ryan Handy with 1 comment

    Most Colorado counties do not have burn bans in effect right now, but there are a few, including Teller County, that do.

    Teller County’s ban was activated about a week ago, according to the county’s website. Read more about the restrictions here. 

    Here’s are the basics of the burn ban:

    • You can burn “materials” that in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, barbecue, grill or pit.
    • You cannot use explosives, fireworks of any type, model rockets, welding or operating torches with open flames in an outdoor location.
    • You can use a barbecue pit, but it must be at least 10 feet away from combustible walls, roofs or other combustible materials (think: wood fences, wood piles, etc…)
    • You can use campfires. Fires must be contained in a pit that is at least 25 feet away from structures or other combustible material. Pits should be three feet in diameter, and at least 18 inches deep. You must have a method on-hand for extinguishing the fire.
    • You cannot burn rubbish–paper, garbage, trash, waste foods, etc–in Teller County.

    Take a look at the statewide burn bans in effect, by county:

    Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 11.25.27 AM

  • Two USFS studies highlight fire impacts in urban zones

    Fri, May 17, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Two recent studies from the U.S. Forest Service discuss how wildfires affect and change urban communities. Both are more or less compendiums of decades of study and approach things from fire survivors’ perspectives.

    The first study, “Social Science at the Wildland-Urban Interface,” looks at the social impacts of wildfire–how a devastating fire has psychological consequences for communities, and how homeowners learn from wildfire experiences and change their practices.

    Some highlights:

    • Most homeowners in the wildland urban interface know the dangers that wildfires pose to their neighborhoods. But, awareness of the risk doesn’t always translate into homeowners taking action, such as doing mitigation on their properties. Often many have a “lightning strikes once” perspective, as in, this happened once, why would it happen again? Also, most homeowners who live in risk zones, but who have never experienced wildfire, wait until a wildfire hits to take precautions.
    • Community perceptions of how wildfires were managed by firefighters or local governments have long-lasting impacts. Sometimes, a wildfire brings a community closer together; other times, it creates tension and drives a community apart. Communication during the fire is key to this–the more people know, the better they feel. 
    • Psychological impacts of surviving a fire are equally long-lasting. Home loss, smoke damage, and permanently transformed landscapes all contribute.
    • Are their alternatives to mandatory evacuations? The report considers how residents handle being driven out of their homes for days (not always well) and the incredible angst they might feel wondering if their homes have survived. Australia allows residents to fight brush fires, and also allows residents to seek shelter in their homes from flames.
    • A few things are on residents’ mind after a fire, and first among them (according to researchers) is the cause of the wildfire. Officials have not yet released the cause of the Waldo Canyon fire. 

    The second report, “Wildfires, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Urban Interface,” is pretty self-explanatory. It looks at some of the same aspects as the first report–for instance, what motivates people to prepare for wildfires–and also notes the growing number of homes in the danger zone. It also talks about the delicate balance of wildfires–fire is a key component to many ecosystems, but it is also proving more and more devastating to humans.

    Some highlights:

    • 32 percent of homes in the United States are in the wildland urban interface.
    • Wildfires serious impact home values. Studies have found that up to two years following a destructive wildfire, the values of the surviving home are lower.
    • More people are moving into the wildland urban interface–something researchers have know for a while. But this report posits something new–that as Baby Boomers start to retire, more of them will be seeking off-the-beaten-path locales, in fire-prone areas, spiking the numbers of residents in the interface.

    If you’re into reading more about fires and fire science, I suggest you sign up for the Joint Fire Science Program eblasts–they don’t come very often, but when they do, they point great out studies, like these, on wildfire. Sign up for emails on the program’s website, on the right hand side of the screen. 


  • Juvenile accountable for Weber Canyon Fire

    Thu, May 9, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    The Colorado U.S. Attorney’s office announced Thursday that a juvenile started the Weber Canyon fire last summer,  which was ignited around 5 p.m. on June 22, 2012.

    The fire burned 10,133 acres last June just southeast of Mancos.

    The juvenile was tried for two acts of juvenile delinquency for willfully or without authority lighting timber on public lands and causing over $1,000 of damage, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office. The juvenile has apologized, and the court is still determining the amount of restitution. Further details about the case were not available Thursday afternoon.

    Click here to read more about the Weber fire.

    The Weber fire ignited at least seven coal seams, several of which were just discovered last week, which continue to burn southeast of Mancos. Coal seams have been known to ignite wildfires, as in the case of the Glenwood Springs fire in 2002, which claimed 29 homes.

    Check out this video of a slurry-bomber dropping retardant on the Weber fire last summer:



  • Coal fires smoldering in western Colorado

    Wed, May 8, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Coal mining officials have discovered at least seven smoldering coal fires this spring that they believe were ignited by last summer’s Weber fire, The Cortez Journal reports.

    According to a recent story in the Journal, “Fire on the Mountain,” four coal-refuse piles and and three natural coal seams are smoldering in rugged terrain in Colorado State Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands near Mancos. The Weber fire burned over 10,000 acres southeast of Mancos as summer.

    This map, from The Cortez Journal’s website, shows where the fires are burning:

    Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 12.14.20 PM

    The fires are more of “nuisance,” and “subterranean” fires, experts told The Cortez Journal–but that doesn’t mean that they can’t pose a threat.

    The multiple sites of simmering coal are belching small, but steady, streams of acrid smoke, and are generating surface heat of up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

    “The potential that they could ignite vegetation and start another wildfire is there,” said Kirstin Brown, a DRMS mine safety specialist, during a tour of the area Friday.

    “The other reason to put them out is they could propagate along the coal seam and start the actual mine on fire, which could burn for decades.”

    There are around 34 coal fires burning across Colorado, some of which can burn for decades and might be too deep within the earth to extinguish.

    A coal seam fire is believed to have started the Glenwood Springs fire in 2002, which claimed 29 homes, according to The Denver Post.

    Read the full story, “Fire on the Mountain,” for more on the safety hazards of coal fires.

  • Cigarettes and wildfires, round two

    Thu, April 25, 2013 by Ryan Handy with no comments

    Yesterday I wrote about a U.S. Forest Service study that correlates a decrease in cigarette smokers to a decrease in wildfires caused by cigarettes. The study did not claim that the two were connected, but just noted that the trajectory of both–fewer smokers, fewer forest service fires–could be related.

    Reader Pete Vanvuren, who is a wildland firefighter, sent me this email in response:

    “I would have to say that the two are most likely unrelated.  When a fire ignites near a road, people are pretty quick to jump to the assumption that ‘it must have been started by a cigarette tossed out a car window’.  It is actually much more likely that such a fire was started by sparks from a lose tow chain dragging on the road, etc.  There are very specific conditions of temperature, RH (Relative Humidity), available fuels, etc and then there are the outside variables of altitude, wind conditions, etc. that are required to get a tossed cigarette to actually start a fire…If there is a correlation between the cigarettes and wildland fires, I would suggest it have to do with the more common use of lower ignition propensity cigarettes.”

    So, a lot of factors and “etcs.” when it comes to fire ignitions.  Pete’s point seems to be that getting a cigarette to start a fire is not as easy as one would suppose.

    I set out to answer that–exactly how does a cigarette start a fire? And what on earth is a “lower ignition propensity” cigarette?

    For question one, I talked to Sara McAllister,  a research mechanical engineer at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Station’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Mont.

    “Cigarettes burn in smoldering combustion mode,” McAllister said. “Even though you don’t see flames, it’s still hot.”

    Cigarettes burn at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry grass only needs to be about 650 degrees to ignite–so a cigarette could do that easily. But, after a fire lights, how can you guarantee that the fire will spread? It all depends on the day, McAllister said.

    “There are a lot of variables– fuel, weather, topography, all of the usual concerns from any ignition source,” she said.

    Now, for question two: What is  a low ignition propensity cigarette and why would it make a difference when it comes to wildfire/fire ignition?

    For that, I spoke with Kristine Van Cleve, the Colorado Division of Fire Safety ‘s Fire Safe Cigarettes and Data Specialist.

    Low ignition propensity cigarettes need to be inhaled for them to burn, essentially.  If someone is not inhaling, then the cigarette will burn down to a certain point and snuff out.

    “It’s kind of a safe guard, if they don’t inhale and it gets to that then it just puts the cigarette out,” Van Cleve explained. All cigarettes in Colorado are officially required to have a low ignition propensity certification, Van Cleve added.

    So, if you fall asleep  while smoking a low propensity cigarette, in theory it should go out before you come to any harm. In theory as well,  if the cigarette gets tossed out a window into a patch of tinder-dry grass, it should snuff out.

    McAllister, on the other hand, had never heard of such a cigarette.