Fighting the flames: An in-depth look at the Middle Fork Fire and the heroes on the frontlines
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — September marks Mathew Ridge’s fourth month living in Routt County — a month he will not soon forget.
The Clark Store where he works as a manager is just 5 miles from the Middle Fork Fire, which has been burning north of Steamboat Springs since Sept. 6. It has grown to 6,760 acres in size, according to the latest update from the U.S. Forest Service.
On Friday morning, four white trucks with Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management badges on the doors were parked outside the Clark Store in North Routt. About 15 firefighters typically come in each day to grab a breakfast burrito, a soda or some snacks for their long days on the job. It’s good for business, Ridge said.
A few hundred feet down the road, at the North Routt Fire Protection District, more trucks with government insignias filled the parking lot and lined the side roads. Routt County’s mobile emergency operations center was stationed outside the fire department with a large map of the blaze taped to the outside. Two men looked at it, gesturing and discussing wind direction.
The scene was reminiscent of a battlefield headquarters, and in many ways there is a war going on. Firefighting crews, vehicles and aircraft have been deployed from across the country to try to stop the inferno from spreading.
For now, it is restricted to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, a remote zone that makes it too dangerous for on-the-ground personnel to fight it directly. Instead, ground crews have been clearing trails and preparing to protect any structures that could fall within the fire’s path. With no moisture in the forecast for the next week, Mother Nature does not have much firefighting power of its own.
Though Ridge is no fire expert and is new to the valley, even he recognizes how unusually dry this summer has been.
“It’s like a big tinderbox out there,” he said.
The new abnormal
A front-page article in the New York Times on Wednesday served as a sobering summary of just how disastrous the effects of climate change have become. Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington have lost entire towns to historic wildfires, sending smoke all the way to the East Coast.
What is worse, according to the scientists quoted in the Times article, the consequences of climate change, from rising sea levels and more extreme natural disasters, are now locked into the global ecosystem and cannot be reversed.
The Middle Fork Fire is burning in an area with a lot of dead and downed timber, primarily from beetle kill and the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown that toppled millions of trees. After a record-arid summer, those trees have record-low moisture content, according to Maribeth Pecotte, a spokesperson for the Forest Service. She called such dry timber “1,000-hour fuels,” referring to the fuel moisture index, a way to understand fire potential.
Thousand-hour fuels do not burn as easily, but once they do start burning they generate extreme heat and often cause the most dangerous fire conditions. They also are harder to extinguish, largely uninhibited by cooler temperatures or bouts of rain.
That is part of the reason why the Middle Fork Fire continues to rage, even this late in the year when wildfires typically dwindle, Pecotte said.
This is indicative of a wider trend in fire behavior. As Jesse McCarty, another spokesperson and former firefighter with the Forest Service explained, wildfires historically were frequent but smaller and less intense. A combination of poor fire management over the last century and the effects of climate change have created a new, disturbing reality. Fires are getting more intense, burning hotter and lasting longer, McCarty said.
Forecasts to evaluate fire risk are becoming increasingly unreliable as the abnormal becomes the new normal, making it harder for scientists and government agencies to know what to expect.
“We used to have a fire season. Now there is talk of fire years,” McCarty explained. “That’s unheard of.”
Faces fighting the flames
As wildfires worsen, agencies like the Forest Service and local fire departments have spent more money and resources to fight them. There currently are four helicopters and a fixed-wing airplane dedicated to the Middle Fork Fire.
Heli-base manager Eric Panebaker took this reporter on a personal tour of the aircraft on Thursday at the Steamboat Springs Airport where the air was intermittently pungent with the stench of gasoline.
One of the helicopters, known as a sky crane, originally was designed for the Navy. It has twin engines below the rotor, packing 4,600 of horsepower each. They look like cannons. This type of helicopter was designed for one thing, Panebaker said, lifting heavy things.
When fighting fires, its primary luggage is water. The sky crane is capable of lugging 2,400 gallons, but at Routt County’s higher elevation, it usually carries up to 1,500 gallons. Attached to the storage tank is a long snorkel that resembles an elephant’s trunk but four times as wide.
The snorkel is capable of sucking water fast enough to fill the tank in just a minute, Panebaker said. Really any body of water will do for a fill-up as long as it is at least 3 feet deep. Some helicopter pilots have even used people’s backyard pools. Around here, pilots usually opt for a mountain lake or a river.
The other large helicopter in use for the Middle Fork Fire, a Chinook, uses a 2,500-gallon bucket attached to a cable to drop water on the flames. Getting a precise drop while also manning the flight controls and accounting for the pendulum swing of the bucket makes one of those claw games at arcades look like a stroll on the beach.
The pilot of the chopper, Ryan O’Herron, compared the process to chess, a mental game that requires always being a step ahead.
“Plus a lot of practice,” he added.
‘If drones fly, we can’t’
A quick but important note to the public: do not fly drones near a wildfire. A temporary flight restriction is in effect around the Middle Fork Fire making it illegal to do so.
There have been at least 15 incidents across the country this year in which a drone endangered or delayed firefighting efforts, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. If one is detected in the area, it forces firefighting crews to ground their air operations, costing valuable time and resources. Even small drones can cause a fatal crash if it hits an aircraft.
“If we spot one, we’re done. We can’t risk the lives of a flight crew,” O’Herron said.
Smoke on the horizon
Friday morning was refreshingly clear in North Routt after weeks of intermittent heavy smoke. The Middle Fork Fire has calmed considerably over the last few days, according to McCarty, the Forest Service spokesperson.
But by the afternoon, gusting winds fanned the flames, sending plumes of thick smoke rising above the horizon. Ridge, the Clark Store manager, has noticed the smoke most at sunset and sunrise when the sky turns a hazy, apocalyptic orange.
Officials are bracing for warmer, drier conditions and strong winds to sweep through the forest and escalate fire activity over the weekend, according to the latest update from the federal agency. Fires on the West Coast show no sign of disappearing anytime soon.
“A lot of these fires will have folks fighting them until you and I are skiing,” Panebaker said.
This is a hard truth to swallow for outdoor enthusiasts, ranchers, environmentalists and anyone who feels a fondness for the world as it was.
If nations do not take immediate and significant action to combat climate change, namely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the consequences will get exponentially worse, scientists warn. Achieving effective solutions is no easy task. Doing so requires reorienting the entire global economy that has become dependent on fossil fuels. In places like Routt and neighboring Moffat County, it means people will lose high-paying jobs, and communities will have to look for new industries in order to survive.
But when it comes to survival, doing nothing would be much, much worse.
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