My fire season started in August, when our views were badly obscured on a seven-day trip in the San Juan Mountains by smoke from the Pine Gulch Fire, which briefly became the largest wildfire in Colorado state history. In September, I cancelled five trips in Yosemite because of toxic air quality due to the Creek Fire, which burned almost 400,000 acres in the upper San Joaquin watershed. The situation was only marginally better at home, since Boulder was contending with smoke from the Cameron Peak Fire, which would later surpass the Pine Gulch Fire in size. Then while guiding out-of-state trips in October, I watched the wind-driven East Troublesome Fire torch 100,000 acres in a night, bound over the Continental Divide at 11,700 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, and threaten the gateway town of Estes Park; while the Calwood Fire destroyed a subdivision just six miles from Boulder city limits.
In an era of anthropogenic climate change, this is the new norm, some will say. If you live in the West, get used to hotter, drier, and longer summers — and worse wildfires.
That’s partially true, but it’s more complex than that.
For a more thorough explanation, I’d strongly recommend this TED talk by forest ecologist Paul Hessburg:
Over the past two decades, I’ve hiked tens of thousands of miles in the American West, and most summers I spend about one month in both the High Sierra and Colorado Rockies. So I’m intimately aware of what Hessburg describes as “the epidemic of trees” in our modern forests, a result of our disastrous Smokey the Bear fire-suppression efforts that have dominated forest policy for more than a century. In large parts of the West, this extensive carpet of mature trees is ready to burn, and has often been primed by deadly insects and disease.
I regularly hike, run, and guide in Rocky Mountain, and I didn’t want it to burn. But I also recognized that it was unavoidable and necessary — only 29,000 acres of it burned this summer, yet it was the largest fire event since the park’s inception 105 years ago.
We should feel lucky that only Tonahutu Creek, North Inlet, and Spruce Canyon burned before a winter storm arrived, because the fire easily could have spread into adjacent drainages like Onahu and East Inlet — and perhaps migrated into nearby areas like the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the foothills of Boulder County. Instead, this new mosaic of burn zones will help protect the spread of future fires.
The restoration of forest health is a painful process to watch, but it’s necessary now and will be better for the long-term.