Almost 90,000 acres have burned in wildfires in Colorado and now the out-of-control fire is headed for Denver. People still talk about the Chicago fire, a century ago, but no major city has burned for years. Will Denver burn?
Forest fires are not uncommon in Colorado but this one, started by sparks from a campfire, is the largest in Colorado history. How can a few sparks start such a huge conflagration? The answer is drought: due to global warming, there?s been less snow, thus less summer snow melt. This means less water and one of the driest years in history, with trees ready to burst into flame. The resin in some pine trees can even burst into flame spontaneously if the weather gets hot and dry enough.
Colorado has a high to very high fire danger rating from the U.S. Forest Service this year, due to severe drought. “This a year when severe drought is affecting much of the Rocky Mountain area and especially the southern part of the Rockies,” says one Colorado resident. “All across this area we are seeing record low amounts of rainfall and snowpack.”
Right now the fire has cast a heavy haze over the city and is advancing from the south, threatening suburbs, recreation areas, ranches and smaller towns. A shift in winds Tuesday saved some suburbs, but 6,000 residents who live near in the path of the fire have been ordered to evacuate. They are removing and their valuables, packing up their cars, and getting ready to run. Many of us have friends and relatives facing the lost of their homes and everything they?ve worked for.
“With the winds starting to pick up, with the heat building, with the humidity falling, the fire professionals have told us that this fire is still very, very dangerous,” says Governor Colorado Bill Owens. “… We’re not out of the woods, so to speak.” Colorado government officials have asked firefighters across the country to join them in fighting the fire and hundreds, from across the country, have responded.
At the northeast end of the fire zone, the fire has moved into areas that were burned earlier in the year. One of these earlier fires was intentionally set in order to reduce the danger of wildfires. These means there is less to burn, and this may slow the fire down. It “has slowed the spread there, and we’ve got our fingers crossed,” says U.S. Forest Service official Rick Cables.
The fire is now spreading at half a mile per hour, about half of its top speed. At least seven other fires are burning in other parts of the state. Some of these fires have overlapped each other, so it?s impossible to tell where one fire starts and the other ends. All firemen can do is keep fighting. They also change directions quickly, meaning that firefighters tend to stay behind them, rather than risk being in front where they might be more effective at preventing the fires from spreading. 14 firefighters were killed when winds changed the direction of one of the fires, trapping the men.
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Joe Albaugh says, “This is a serious situation, and everyone needs to understand the gravity that we’re faced with now.”
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