Fire Weather: Hot, Dry & Thunderous

A 100,000+ acre, lightening caused fire that burned in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests and on private lands in southern Colorado. Photo Courtesy of the US Forest Service

For years, Smokey Bear had me convinced that humans were destroying Nature with their campfires and cigarettes. Our carelessness causes fire to devour all of Mother Earth’s handiwork, stripping trees to their naked trunks and leaving behind charred and dismal landscapes. As if it wasn’t enough that we were depriving animals of their habitat already, fire forces even more critters to flee their dens and prevents return for several years, sometimes even decades.<p>Growing up in Ohio, I’m not surprised Smokey Bear seemed to carry such an ominous tone with his message. In the last three years, a consistent 98% of fires in the East have been started by humans and have burned an average of 121,000 acres a year. When you compare that statistic with what happens west of the Rockies, humans are at fault for way more acreage (2010-2012 average comes in at 1.6 million acres). But the West also deals with a natural fury that cannot be appeased or evaded and in most years, is responsible for devastating more land.*<p>Lightning, when matched with an incredibly parched terrain, creates a Hell on Earth environment, eager to burst into flames. Unlike the East, where constant rainfall and high humidity rates thwart lightning-ignited burns, the West sees nothing but sun, 15 hours a day for weeks on end. The hot and super dry climate shrivels up the flora. Even when the clouds release rain, the moisture evaporates before hitting the ground so nothing gets quenched, a phenomenon called “dry thunderstorms.”

The view of the West Fork Complex fire from Del Norte, Colorado. Photo Courtesy of the US Forest Service

At this stage, the smallest spark can ignite a raging blaze: chains dangling precariously over an interstate road, trains chugging along on the railroads, or even a Pulaski clipping a boulder. In fact, last month, a 700-acre grass fire broke out right outside Missoula after a lawnmower ran over a rock. It took five days and 73 firefighters to contain and cost the government $630,000 – and that’s on the lower end of the spectrum.<p>So imagine what happens when a dry thunderstorm rolls in and lets out a wrath of lightning strikes all over the region, many of which land in wilderness areas and mountain ridges that are impossible to reach via roads. Airplanes, satellites and a few manned lookouts are responsible for spotting and reporting those fires, but contrary to what Smokey might have you believe, suppression is not always the automatic solution. When the flames are nowhere near structures, peopled communities, or areas of economic or recreational value (i.e. timber forests and hunting grounds), fire managers will often keep watch and wait for the fire to extinguish itself.<p>There are several reasons why an agency might choose not to suppress:

1) It costs a lot of money. Last year, the U.S. government spent $1.9 billion on wildfire suppression.

2) To contain a large fire requires several hundred firefighters on top of repellent planes, helicopters and engines. Not only are you paying those firefighters overtime and hazard pay, but you’re also putting their lives in serious danger.

3) Fire has its place in the ecosystem: it is a natural means of clearing dead debris, eradicating invasive species, and freeing room for new plant growth. If we attacked every fire, forest beds would suffocate and if lightning were to strike, the overburdened area would burn faster, longer and with greater ferocity.

Missoula Smokejumper, Brendan Quinn, waits for dinner after tending to a fire all day in the Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon. Photo by Jamey Thomaston

So there you have it. This is far more information than you will ever get on one of my tours, but now you are equipped with a little understanding of what is happening every time you see wildfire coverage in the media or even out your window. And if I’ve inspired you to keep up with current fire activity in the country, visit: activefiremap.fs.fed.us.

Special thanks to Northern Rockies meteorologist Bryan Henry and MSO Smokejumper Base Manager Mike Fritsen. 

*All statistics derived from the National Interagency Fire Center (www.nifc.gov)

During fire season, heavy smoke will scatter light from the sunset and make the landscape look like Mars. Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service