Why is the West on fire?

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.

Bettle-killed spruce in Little Squaw Creek, Rio Grande National Forest

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.

Hiking off-trail through thick stands of beetle-killed spruce in lower Onahu Creek.
Posted in on November 9, 2020


  1. Ryan on November 9, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    Thoughts on active management besides controlled burns? Seems like thinning forests out would allow for better, less intense natural burns and be easier to justify than controlled burns.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 9, 2020 at 3:03 pm

      Thinning is difficult in wilderness and road-less areas (at least without new roads, to which I’d generally be opposed), but I’d support it elsewhere. It’s a tool in the toolbox, why not use it.

      The City of Boulder does does quite a bit of thinning in the foothills on the west side of the city, and I wish they’d do more because it will lower the very real risk of a fire running downhill and into the residential areas. This seems like a perfect use of the practice.

  2. Luke Schmidt on November 9, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    I wonder if slective logging/thinning with hand tools and horses is economical in any wilderness areas. I sort of doubt it. It would be entertaining to watch if it did happen.

    • Hike On on November 9, 2020 at 11:41 pm

      Entertainment indeed! The vast accumulation of fuels in lands across the West will lead to potentially massive fires of which this summer is just a preview.
      And by the West I mean everything from Alaska to British Columbia to Washington, Idaho, Montana and the rest!

      One incredible account of a massive blaze is “The Great 1910 Fires of Idaho and Montana”


      This is the fire that led to the fire suppression practices for the next several decades – one of the reasons for our current predicament.

      You want entertainment, you got it! Unless you plan to leave the planet.

  3. Michael Long on November 13, 2020 at 11:46 am

    Thanks Andrew, this is a subject I’ve been following for a long time. Here is a link to more information on the issue: https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen

    My father worked for the USFS for almost 40 years and had a Masters degree in Silviculture from Yale. I still remember a discussion we had back in the 1980’s before he retired and he commented that it had been a big mistake for the Forest Service to suppress all wildfires for the very reasons that Paul Hessburg talked about. So this is an issue that the USFS has been aware of for many decades but because of political and other reasons has been unable to change the way wildfires are managed. So I’m not optimistic that forest management policies will change soon.

    And for those who love and want to learn more about trees there is a great book out: “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 13, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      You’re right about the politics of this.

      When I was walking around the West in 2007, I hit major wildfires just after I exited Glacier and just before the Bob. The fires were not threatening a town or any major infrastructure, yet an army of firefighters had been tasked with putting it out.

      I started asking every firefighter and local official I met, “Why?” And I never got an answer that made sense ecologically. They pointed to private cabins out in the woods, air quality for residents of Great Falls and other plains towns, the outdoor experience of “my grandkids” who should be spared a burned-out Bob or Glacier, etc. Also, I couldn’t help but notice the outrageous fire-fighting industrial complex — this industry means a paycheck for thousands of firefighters each summer, millions of dollars in equipment purchases (wall tents, trucks, choppers), and a huge injection of money into rural towns by way of lodging and meals.

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