My Impressions of the Waldo Canyon Fire
I live well northeast of Colorado Springs, so the Waldo Canyon fire did not affect me directly, other than the times the air was full of smoke. Yet I grew up in Colorado Springs; I know some of the areas that burned; I know many who had to evacuate; and I got a look into Hell albeit from a distance. It has been a sobering and emotional week.
If you scroll to the end of this, there is a video taken from northeast of the fire, it is a time lapse of the view from the photographer’s deck. (He’s named Steve also, but isn’t me. He lives quite a bit west of me.)
Saturday 23 June
I drove into Colorado Springs on some sort of errand (I don’t remember what) and saw a small plume of smoke rising from behind the ridge that separates the main part of the city from Ute Pass.
Time for a short geography primer. Colorado Springs was founded directly east of Pikes Peak, which is a fairly well isolated 14,115 foot peak. (Most of the other “fourteeners” in Colorado are quite near other fourteeners, for whatever reason Pikes Peak stands alone. Oh, and let me deal with a fairly common misconception: Pikes Peak is not a volcano, not even a dead one; it’s made of granite not basalt.) There’s a much lower ridge (10,000 feet or so) running north-south in front of Pikes Peak, ending with Cheyenne mountain on the south (that’s where NORAD is, for you Stargate fans), and running well up towards Denver. But there is a notch in the Rampart Range, a diagonal cut running southeast to northwest, and this is Ute Pass. If you drive up Ute Pass you start well east (and a bit south) of Pikes Peak, the other end of it is much higher up and almost directly north of the peak, in the town of Woodland Park. Drive another twenty miles almost due west or so and you end up in the real South Park. (A “park” here is simply a large relatively low and flat area up in the mountains. I say “relatively” because elevations are still over 8000 feet.)
The main highway up Ute Pass is US-24, which eventually crosses all of South Park, then turns north. Driving up Highway 24, you cross through Manitou Springs, then up a narrow winding stretch of the pass, then you reach the town of Woodland Park.
So this smoke plume looked like it was coming from the north side of Highway 24 but somewhere in Ute Pass.
I was already worried. I have vivid memories of watching the smoke rise from the Hayman Fire ten years ago, and the night it just went wild, and people were worried it would cross highway 67, then be unstoppable as it came over Rampart Range. As it turned out it never got east of Woodland Park. But it burned 200 square miles of forest and a number of structures, and four people died either fighting the fire or travelling to get there. I could tell this was a lot closer but it was still small, and hopefully could be nipped in the bud.
Later that afternoon, the smoke plume was quite a bit larger, and I knew this was going to be trouble. By evening the fire was 2000 acres, which is over three square miles.
Monday 25 June 2012
Driving into Colorado Springs to work, the stink of smoke was horrendous. Later that day the weather changed, and the smoke was able to rise. The plume ran far enough to give me shade at my house!
The wind blew from the southeast, straight up Ute Pass. A small oval area fire grew a long pseudopod running northwest, that reminds me of the Antarctic peninsula, so now the fire was burning on a line that paralleled Highway 24.
This was the “perfect” setup for the next day.
Tuesday 26 June 2012
The fire grew in the morning. And then it happened… wind out of the south and west, gusting to 65 miles an hour. All that the Beast needed to go on a rampage. This wind hit the line formed on Monday broadside, and that line functioned as a wide bulldozer blade of death.
To top it off Tuesday was an all-time temperature record for Colorado Springs; the thermometer hit 101 degrees. It had never before exceeded 100 (on the previous Sunday, 24 June, and also 24 July 2003, 13 July 1954, and on 23 and 24 June 1954) (what is it with the 24th of June?).
The police hastily evacuated the northwest part of Colorado Spring as well as part of the Air Force Academy, and this was a prudent thing to do; the fire was coming at us insanely fast.
As the sun set, the fire came right down over the Rampart Range, and reached the northwestern part of the city. Houses began burning.
Houses began burning.
If I had to estimate, I’d say that 95% of people in the US own very little that is not in their houses, other than their cars. The house and its contents represents the sum total of everything they were able to produce in their lives, other than what they had to consume to stay alive, and other than what they put into raising their children. Which is a fancy way of saying, that for most people their house and the things in it are the sum total of all the wealth one has built up over one’s entire life. One can belittle it and say “oh those are just things” but those things are oftentimes what makes life worth living, and in so many cases hugely enriches people’s lives. Insurance will replace many things, but many items are irreplaceable and have sentimental value.
For 346 households, that was destroyed. Gone. The devastation these people must have experienced is impossible to put into words.
Fortunately, only two people have actually died. Though there are still eight missing.
I ended up, that evening standing on a low hill at Austin Bluffs and Dublin. I could see, something like 5 miles to the west, a line of orange lights. Every one of those lights was a burning house. I did not have my camera (of Venus Transit fame) with me, unfortunately. (I did have it with me Wednesday but fortunately, I had no need of it.)
I stared straight down the throat of hell, and was glad of every inch of those five miles. Realizing that I live twenty miles away was not comforting when I considered that I am twenty miles downwind from this inferno.
Firefighters were the only people in the burning neighborhoods, and they fought the Beast valiantly. Many homes survived, right next to ones that burned to the ground. These folks endured Hell on Earth, while I watched from five miles away.
And you know, they did well. And they did good. I believe without their efforts the fire would have crossed Centennial boulevard, and burned far, far more houses. Phenomenal work, guys. Phenomenal.
And I for one refuse to belittle what they did by trying to give the credit to a mythic being. Thank god? Hell no. Thank the people who had the foresight to plan for such an emergency; it was obvious to me that police and firefighters have trained for something like this. Thank the people who did the work and risked their lives.
[As an aside, I find it irksome that those who insist on crediting god for stopping the fire where it did, refuse to blame him for allowing it to get this far in the first place. Seems to me you cannot have the one without the other.]
Wednesday 27 June 2012… and later
Some hoped-for relief, it looks like. I even saw some raindrops hit my car windshield. But sure enough at about 3 PM the wind picked up yet again.
But this time the wind died down quickly. And over the next few days it began to look like the Beast would be tamed. By now it is finally 50% contained–and containment didn’t get past 5% until sometime on Thursday.
A fire like this won’t be fully out until the snow flies this fall. But chances look good that this fire will not threaten lives and property again.
That having been said, we are in a drought, and have been for over ten years. Both forest and grass fires are a hazard (in fact a much bigger–but less damaging–grass fire occurred in Windsor just a few weeks ago). This fire may be done doing people and property in… but there is always the next one. And you will note there are already plenty of other active fires here this summer.
Here is the time lapse video I mentioned earlier. It starts a few hours after I first noticed the smoke plume. It slows down for the Tuesday night horror (Ash Tuesday?). Apparently all of it was taken from one location, with zooms (and possibly pans) at various times.
If you have the bandwidth for it, I recommend high definition/full screen. You can see the stars tracking across the sky (as well as some burned out pixels that appear stationary).
Note the smoke blowing to the right (southeast to northwest) on Monday and then from the west on Tuesday.