During June and July, and probably until the snow smothers the last embers, the West Fork Complex Fire has burned 109,000-plus acres of the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests.
In a circle of fire exists individual points of light, opportunity, life, duty, task, tree, otter, beaver, lynx, deer, elk, pine cone, stream, river, home, rock, person, memory, hope. When one sees the numerous factors of a fire’s containment, the circles begin to interconnect.
If there’s anything that’s true about fire, it’s that there is a cycle that it follows and creates and the West Fork Complex Fire reflects it. Drought suppresses trees’ immune systems, spruce pine beetles infest said trees which then die. Lightning strikes on the buildup of fuels, spring winds push oxygen into the flames, fires burn, rain falls, heat subsides, grasses begin to grow again within weeks of burning, aspen trees will fill in the dead spruce-fire forest, and the cycle begins again.
Add humans and the cycle becomes more complicated and the consequences more intense, because we have suppressed fires and humans live closer to the fire’s fuel. Fire destroys more infrastructure, takes more lives, costs more money, and requires more bureaucracy to fight.
To an outsider’s eye, fighting fire happens in cycles and circles of reconnaissance and containment, circles of support, circles of co-workers who become circles of friends, circles of life.
Containment is the concept of trapping the fire within itself by letting the fire run into natural boundaries like rock, a body of water, or by hemming it in with a hand- or dozer-hewn fire line. The most common type of containment is a line dug around the entire fire. Fire command chose to fight the West Fork Complex Fire with another containment method.
“Because of steep and rocky terrain, we decided in cooperation with the National Forests, to use the point protection strategy,” said Sarah Gracey, Public Information Officer with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, who has been contracted to work on the fire. “The decisions had to do with the (inaccessible) wilderness areas and the very dry fuels that fed the fire. We were seeing areas of up to 70 percent beetle killed trees.”
Since 2004, more than 380,000 acres of trees in the Rio Grande National Forest have succumbed to the spruce-pine beetle infestation.
Phil Daniels, Incident Commander with the Division of Fire Prevention and Control with the State of Colorado, concurred. “Point protection strategy takes into consideration the values that need to be protected like homes, power lines, water sources, bridges,” Daniels said. “We can go to locations and protect structures, but may not be able to stop the fire.”
Jeff Burns is a 20-year veteran who has fought fire in every national forest in the country. Burns, the District Forester with the Colorado State Forest Service on the Alamosa District, said, “Fuel is the only thing we can manipulate in the fire triangle of heat, fuel and oxygen.” A fire line built for containment must be dug or dozed to bare mineral soil and the width depends on the height of the fuel and flames. “This is very difficult to accomplish.”
So difficult to accomplish, that at one point there were more than 2,000 people assigned to various fire crews. “The logistics are enormous for fighting fire. You need safe camping for crews, servicing vehicles, flying aircraft, bathrooms, water for drinking, washing, dousing, three meals a day – two hot and a sack lunch – ground transportation, finance, public relations, payroll,” Gracey said.
“Safety is paramount,” Burns said.
Burns didn’t get to fight fire this summer. However, he has worked with property owners who faced this summer’s West Fork Complex Fire.
“Once in the blood, it’s hard to ignore what’s going on. You know people who are fighting the fire and you’ve helped manage defensible space with landowners,” Burns said. “I’m curious to know how it all worked.”
Of the 66 percent of the fire that was “contained” by July 17, only about 20 to 30 percent of it was constructed line.
While Daniels, who has worked on forest fires for the past 29 years, said that no two fires are the same, the West Fork Complex Fire reminds him a lot of the Yellowstone National Park fires in 1988.
“It (Yellowstone) was a moonscape,” he said. “But I was there the next year and it was already gorgeous again. Now that the spruce is gone (in the RGNF), there will be 100 years of aspen, then spruce again. Fires are natural and normal, but our job is to keep people safe. Trees disappear, but hopefully we can keep people from disappearing in the process.”
On a flyover of the burned area the week of July 15th, Daniels saw 50 or more elk. “The grasses have started to rehabilitate themselves already.”