BY HILLARY ROSNER
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 26, 2020
It’s been a sad, smoky few months in Colorado. Although the blazes in California and Oregon received more national attention over the summer, Colorado has been burning since July.
Three of the largest fires in state history have burned this year. The Cameron Peak fire, now the largest in state history, has burned more than 207,000 acres since mid-August. The second-largest blaze in state history, the East Troublesome Fire, started on October 13—and a few days later grew by 140,000 acres in a single night. That fire, spurred by intense winds, jumped the Continental Divide, traveling across more than a mile of rocks and tundra shrubland and into Rocky Mountain National Park. It had burned more than 190,000 acres—and an estimated 300 to 400 houses—before a snowstorm provided some relief on October 25.
Active fires since October 19, 2020
700,000 acres—almost 1,100 square miles—have burned in Colorado this year. Almost a third of that happened in October, well outside what’s long been considered the normal fire season.
© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic's current map policy. NOTE: Data as of October 26, 2020. SOURCE: NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER
The same factors that led to disaster in California—climate change and a legacy of misguided forest management—are at play here too. Almost all of Colorado is now experiencing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. And according to the Denver Post, crews have not yet begun $4.2 billion worth of forest thinning and other projects the state has deemed “critical to protect people and property from fires.”
Where I live, in Boulder, mid-October temperatures were still in the 80s. Ash had been falling for months and firefighting jets flew overhead most days—but until recently the fires themselves felt like something that happened elsewhere. Boulder was in the national news for another reason: On October 13, U.S. News and World Report named it the best place to live in the entire country.
Since I moved here, in 2002, the population has increased by about 13 percent, to 106,000, and home prices have skyrocketed. Much of that growth is people who, like me, moved from larger metro areas—New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area—for Boulder’s quality of life. The median price of a home here is now about $1.125 million, and houses frequently receive multiple offers within hours of listing.
Meanwhile, in the hills west of Boulder, the ponderosa pine forests are overcrowded and unhealthy, and they haven’t been allowed to burn in their natural fire cycles for more than a hundred years. When they do finally burn, climate change will increase the odds of those fires getting big fast, like the ones this year. The city and county have been working to thin some of these areas, with selective logging and prescribed burns. But it takes time, money, and coordination between a host of different stakeholders.
It’s a question of when, not whether, a fire will come roaring into Boulder itself. Yet few people here think about their risk. I didn’t used to myself, until lately.
Four days after the “best place to live” award, under high winds and a red flag warning, a new fire began, and a cloud of smoke mushroomed from a mountainside northwest of town. Christened the CalWood Fire for the beloved outdoor education center where it ignited—cause unknown but undoubtedly human—the blaze quickly grew. Small communities in the foothills evacuated.
Then the CalWood fire raced downhill from the mountains to the plains. It became the biggest fire in Boulder County history, at more than 10,000 acres. The flames briefly crossed US 36, a main thoroughfare that heads north out of Boulder.
People fled as quickly as they could, loading horses into trailers, packing dogs and cats and valuables into cars. It seemed as though the fire might continue to spread east and south, into Boulder. City residents who rarely worry about wildfire became uneasy.
For only the second time in the 18 years I’ve lived here, on the southwestern side of town, my family packed go bags. So did many people I know.
Top: Smoke from the East Troublesome Fire fills the sky above Estes Park, on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, on Oct. 22, 2020.
Bottom: The entire town of Estes Park was evacuated as the fire approached; here Estes
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW JONAS, MEDIANEWS GROUP, BOULDER DAILY CAMERA, GETTY IMAGES
On the edge
Boulder sits where the plains meet the mountains at a sharp angle, and it’s surrounded by a greenbelt—preserved in the 1960s by prescient city planners—that’s key to its allure. But all that lovely open space also poses a risk, even if we tend to underestimate it. People who work on wildfires talk about the wildland-urban interface, or the WUI (pronounced woo-eee). It’s where neighborhoods meet natural areas. It’s where people have increasingly chosen to live, and where wildfire risk is highest.
In Boulder, residents of the flatter, more paved neighborhoods—the city proper—tend to think of the WUI as being up in what city planners call “the mountain backdrop.” That’s a fallacy.
“The city of Boulder is the definition of the WUI,” says Chris Wanner, forest ecologist for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department. “We are right here. But I think it’s somewhat easy to get complacent when you feel like, ‘I live in the city, it’s not going to impact me.’”
This sentiment was common in an unscientific poll I took, questioning a couple dozen friends who live on the west side of town. “Do you feel like you are at risk from wildfire?” I asked, the Friday after the CalWood fire began. (That blaze was followed the next day by another local fire, and more mountain evacuations.)
“I've lived in Boulder on and off for 25 years and this is the first year I've worried about wildfire in Boulder,” one friend said. “I generally feel this is a mountain community issue, but the jump of CalWood across 36 was a bit of a reality check,” said another.
Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, points out that while flood plain maps are commonplace, “we don’t have fire maps that direct development and insurance in the same way, so you don’t think about it when you buy your house.” Balch is also my neighbor; we both live near a trailhead where a five-minute walk up a grassy hill takes you into ponderosa pine forest. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it’s primed to go up in flames. I was curious how Balch thought about the risk.
“At some point, the conditions are going to be in the right place,” she said of our neighborhood and its chances of burning. She pointed out the line of junipers that create a privacy barrier between the trailhead and a couple of homes that back to it. Junipers can burn fast and hot, shooting off embers. Yet they’re common in neighborhoods throughout Boulder that were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the fast-growing trees were popular.
Balch showed me a new app called Defensible that maps fire risk on a color scale, building by building, across all 11 Western states. Red is the highest risk, blue is the lowest. Both our homes were orange.
“Everybody has their own risk tolerance,” Balch said, “ and on some level some of that doesn’t make any sense.”
The time to prepare
Over the past 15 years, the city of Boulder has thinned forests and conducted prescribed burns on 2,000 acres. That kind of work can cost millions of dollars. But it’s certainly a lot less costly than putting out a fire that’s racing into town, let alone the potential damages if the fire can’t be put out in time. As I watched the progress of the CalWood fire last week, I was reminded of the Waldo Canyon fire in the summer of 2012. It began in the hills outside Colorado Springs, but then it swept into the city, burning nearly 350 homes in suburban subdivisions.
Over the weekend, snow put a damper on some of the Colorado fires. This photo shows an area that had been in the path of the Cameron Fire, which also affected Rocky Mountain National Park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. FOREST SERVICE, AP
People do incredibly stupid things, and they are not going to stop as the weather gets hotter and drier. Balch recalled watching with horror, not long ago, as a man put out a cigarette 20 feet along a trail near our houses. “I was like, ‘You made sure that’s out, right?’” she said. All summer, my own sleep had been interrupted by fireworks—a favorite pastime in a nearby student neighborhood. Even as the CalWood fire burned, I woke to the sound of fireworks exploding, feeling overwhelmed by a mixture of rage and dread. It does not take much to set bone-dry vegetation ablaze. And bone-dry vegetation is increasingly likely in the age of climate change.
As the CalWood Fire crept toward Boulder, Lori Peek found herself in the evacuation zone; she fled with her husband and dog “as spot fires ignited the parched land” on the mountainside behind her house. Peek happens to know a lot about risk, as a sociologist who studies disaster and directs the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. In a blog post she wrote that while waiting to learn if her house was still standing, she urged people to recognize the risks they faced and “make provisions.”
“Please don’t wait,” Peek wrote. “The time to prepare has always been now.”
My family and I were lucky last week; the fire never reached our neighborhood. Peek was lucky too; her house survived. But some two dozen other dwellings burned in that fire, along with hundreds more in the other blazes.
The fires near Boulder, at least, are now under control, and the region is blanketed in snow. But the risk remains. “Every time one of these fires happens,” says Wanner, “it’s like, it could’ve been a little bit closer to town. For sure.”
8 Sustainable Craft Breweries In The USA That Help You Live Every Day Like It's Earth Day
Article by: Sarah Spoljaric
Drink ResponsiblyEarth Day (observed annually on April 22nd) is a day to appreciate everything the Earth does for us and to focus on how we can protect it for the future. What better way to celebrate then to show the planet some gratitude this month with a cold beer from a sustainable brewery.
1. Anderson Valley Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Boonville, CA
Why We Love Them | Hard to miss with their mascot the “beer” (a bear with deer antlers) Anderson Valley is committed to reusing water to help the California drought, donating healthy grains to local livestock, running on 40% solar power, and using recycled cans. Spend an afternoon on their free 18-hole frisbee golf course, with payment for lost frisbee’s in push-ups. Known for their malty Boont Amber Ale, they’ve recently begun releasing a variety of Gose sour beers, which are a personal favorite, and are perfect for a daytime outdoor BBQ or kayaking excursion.
VISIT ANDERSON VALLEY BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
2. New Belgium Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Fort Collins, CO
Why We Love Them | New Belgium Brewing Company releases a yearly sustainability report so you can keep up with all the good they are doing for the world. In 2016, 99% of their waste did not end up in a landfill since they find a variety of ways to recycle and reuse it. You can find their famous Fat Tire Amber Ale all over the US, or head to their brewery in Fort Collins and celebrate Earth Day there. Not sure which of their beers are for you? Take advantage of their beer flights to get a taste of a variety of beers they (or any other brewery) offer to discover your favorites.
VISIT NEW BELGIUM BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
3. Brooklyn Brewery Where To Find Them | Brooklyn, NY
Why We Love Them | Brooklyn Brewery works on sustainability through their beer, warehouse, offices, tasting room, and community. In 2016, across the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, they planted 375 acres of CO2 converting trees. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on their limited Serpent Belgian style golden ale aged in bourbon barrels it will not disappoint. Their local favorite, Brooklyn Lager is perfect for hanging in a hammock and taking in all the scenery.
VISIT BROOKLYN BREWERY ONLINE
4. Ninkasi Brewery Where To Find Them | Eugene, OR
Why We Love Them | Focusing on giving back to their community through fundraising and donating profits to charities, Ninkasi Brewery has upcycled over 40 millions pounds of grains since 2009. They also use solar power to provide a portion of energy to produce their incredible beers. Known for their IPA’s with names as mind blowing as the beer, from their hard hitting double IPA, Tricerahops, to their IPA, Dawn Of The Red, Ninkasi kills the game.
VISIT NINKASI BREWERY ONLINE
5. Hops and Grain Where To Find Them | Austin, TX
Why We Love Them | From making dog treats with their grains to having conscious water practices, Hops and Grain creates a fun atmosphere for their devoted customers. Frequently changing the brews they have on tap you’ll never get bored at their Austin taproom. Their crisp pale ale, A Pale Mosaic, and malty porter, A Porter Culture, will hit the spot any day of the week. I’d say to pour one out for the #1 homie Earth, but I’m sure the earth would prefer you just drink it instead.
VISIT HOPS AND GRAIN ONLINE
6. Alaskan Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Juneau, AK
Why We Love Them | Do you dream of enjoying a beer with one of the most majestic views on earth? Alaskan Brewing Company will make any explorer thrilled. They hold the torch for being the first craft brewery beginning in 1998 to use a CO2 recovery system to clean the CO2 produced during the fermentation process. The aptly named Hopothermia, an American Double IPA, that Alaskan Brewing Co describes “pairs best with large wild game that you have caught with your bare hands.” Can’t get any more in Alaskan than that.
VISIT THE ALASKAN BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
7. Sierra Nevada Where To Find Them | Chico, CA
Why We Love Them | Possibly the most well known craft brewery, Sierra Nevada, has been committed to sustainability since day one, as well as making some of the best beers in the world. By offering some of their well known brews, like their Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA in cans they are able to, not only make a more portable beer for adventuring, but the cans are more easily recyclable. So throw a couple in your backpack to enjoy the mountaintop views during a hike, or just hang out with some backyard cornhole.
VISIT SIERRA NEVADA ONLINE
8. Heritage Brewery Co Where To Find Them | Manassas, VA
Why We Love Them | Focused on giving back to veterans and patriots and where all the furniture in the tap house is recycled or repurposed, Heritage Brewing Co works hard to put in the hours to create beer that inspires and helps the planet. Celebrating all things America, check out their East Coast Pale Ale, The Teddy, which is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, who created the United States National Forest Service and established five national parks. Any of which would make a wonderful backdrop for celebrating Earth Day.
VISIT HERITAGE BREWING CO ONLINE
So raise a glass and make a toast to the beautiful planet we all call home this summer, and don’t forget to recycle the bottle!
By Pamela Johnson with Loveland Reporter-Herald
Fire officials are expecting warm, windy weather Monday on both the Cameron Peak and Mullen fires, saying the winds may test their fire lines but hoping to keep the flames from spreading further.
The Cameron Peak Fire, which sparked in western Larimer County on Aug. 13, has burned 126,164 acres, making it the third largest fire in Colorado history behind the 2002 Hayman Fire and the still burning Pine Gulch fire. As of Sunday, it remained at 40% contained.
Fire crews worked by hand, with heavy equipment and with the help of air tankers over the weekend to strengthen barriers built to stop the spread of the fire, to douse areas of extreme fire heat to prevent more spread and to protect homes that are threatened by the fire.
So far, the fire has damaged or destroyed 99 structures, and evacuations and closures remain in place.
And with warmer temperatures and winds that could gust to 40 mph on Monday, the fire area was covered by a red flag warning from 9 p.m. Sunday through 7 p.m. Monday. An online fire report said these conditions are expected to “test” the work fire crews have completed along the eastern edge and the northeast corner of the fire, which have been the highest priority for containment recently. “We have some challenging weather coming up, which is going to test our fire and test our control lines,” John Norton-Jensen, planning operations trainee with the Northwest Incident Management Team, said in a recorded briefing on Sunday.
A second fire that sparked in Southern Wyoming on Sept. 17, has burned across the Colorado border in Jackson County and led to some evacuations there and in northwestern Larimer County. The Mullen Fire was reported at 140,140 acres and 11% contained on Sunday. Officials warned of a warming dry trend that will start on Monday that, with gusty winds, is expected to lead to active burning and significant fire spread.” Chip Redmond, incident meteorologist, said Sunday that the warmer, drier, windier conditions will continue on the Mullen Fire through the week.
“They’re still going to be cranking,” Redmond said in a recorded briefing. “They’re going to be gusting 30 even 35 mph, not on the fire but around the fire … The rest of week, its rinse, wash, repeat. I don’t see any reprieve this week.”
The winds from the Mullen Fire have carried the smoke throughout surrounding communities, including reaching both Loveland and Fort Collins. This is predicted to continue on Monday.
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