This story by Sarah Scoles appeared in the July 20 edition of Wired magazine. Shared with permission.
I first heard about Colorado’s Spring Fire on July 1, when I was driving back from a camping trip. My mom texted me from her home in Florida: “How close are these fires?” I pulled over to a rest stop, called up the federal disaster website Inciweb, and sent her back a screenshot of the wildfire’s perimeter. It seemed far away from my house on the Huerfano County line, like it would have to cross impossible acres to even come close. “Looks like we’re good,” I wrote back.
The Spring Fire is the third largest in the state’s history. By the time I learned about it, the fire already had burned through more than 40,000 acres. A plume of smoke unfurled into a constantly replenished mushroom cloud. It was 0 percent “contained,” meaning that no human-made or natural barrier was stopping the fire’s edge from expanding. Costilla and Huerfano counties had evacuated around 2,000 households by July 2.
The fire had, by then, grown to more than 56,000 acres, just 5 percent contained.
I arrived at my cabin on the 3rd, hose in hand, knowing I couldn’t really help the house but not knowing what else to do. The Spring Fire had bloomed to nearly 80,000 acres. The Transportation Department closed the highway right at the turnoff to my place. Big-bellied planes full of retardant crossed the sky overhead, their flight path traversing part of the bullishly named Wet Valley.
That night, the sunset, reflecting off the smoke particles, was spectacular. The mountains all looked like they were on fire—even the ones that weren’t.
At their temporary command post in Walsenburg, they have all the divisions a business might, including finance types, HR reps, and porta-potty procurers. Every day, a planning team writes out a 30-page packet of information about everything a firefighter might need, from which frequencies to use for communications to what the weather will be like.
For that latter part, there’s a dedicated meteorologist. He sits next to Crook as part of a unit that prints more than 150 maps every day—county roads and structures, topography from the US Geological Survey, GPS locations from the ground. After Crook checks on the infrared flight, she gets information from her officemate about the relative humidity; she’s hoping that it increased significantly overnight. “If it’s good, the fire is not going to be active as early,” she adds. They dig into data from weather stations—permanent ones and seven RAWS, remote automated weather systems, specially installed at critical Spring Fire locations—informing a forecast Crook will present during morning meetings.
That’s just the beginning of Crook’s day, which she dedicates to predicting the north fire’s next moves, as best she can.
At 6 p.m., I tuned in to the community briefing, streamed via Facebook Live from the small town of La Veta.
“Happy Fourth of July, everybody,” says David Detray, fire chief of the La Veta area. “I want to give you this picture of your La Veta Fire Protection District personnel.” On the screen behind him, eight firefighters, two holding American flags and one holding a giant teddy bear, stood in a V, seemingly paused in a march through an otherwise empty street.
This picture was from the main street in Cuchara, an 8,500-foot-high village that had been evacuated. Citizens couldn’t hold their annual Independence Day parade, which they’ve done for some 50 years. So the firefighters took a moment to stage a miniature, kind of morbid one for them.
“These are your people,” Detray declares.
In the Blue Team’s update, operations section chief Chris Zoller notes where the fire had been “pushing,” expanding its edge by 6,000 to 7,000 acres. He moves on to an area, full of trees, where the fire would soon hit a road and move into a region called “Paradise Acres.” “This is going to be our trouble area for the next 24 hours,” he says.
There’s also a bit of logistical challenge: not just where to put the porta-potties, but also how to get the humans and heavy equipment you need. When the Spring Fire started and Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team showed up on the scene, the fire was already moving fast. They needed to act. But the rest of the state also seemed to be on fire. “It took like four days before I was able to get the resources to even come close to what we needed to help start suppressing the fire,” says Jay Esperance, the Blue Team’s incident commander.
But that, he notes, is life. “There’s only so many firefighters and equipment, and we were the new show in town.”
Once the heavy machinery did arrive, it was substantial. At one point, there were 17 bulldozers to clear out lines of land to contain the blaze, two “masticators” to chew up brush and other small-diameter stuff, and skidders to move logs.
In addition to ground-bound resources, the Spring Fire fighters also took to the sky. They used planes and helicopters, although Zoller calls them “fixed-wing” and “rotor-wing” aircraft. The planes that combated this blaze—stashed in fire-prone regions across the country during the volatile season—included single-engine flyers and VLATs, Very Large Air Tankers. Both carried fire retardant that spilled from their bellies like paintball powder. The helicopters took care of the H-2-O. “Water is for the immediate need to cool things down,” says Zoller. Retardant, meanwhile, slows the fire down.
Above the winged craft flies an “eye in the sky”: an in-the-air air-traffic controller. “He directs all the traffic, and keeps the rotor-wing out of the way of the fixed-wing,” explains Zoller.
Because the last thing anyone needs during a wildfire is a plane crash.
No matter how much data anyone or any satellites take, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen next for the communities. But if one of Crook’s models could provide post-fire forecasts, it would probably say that life will slowly grow back toward normal.