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Will History Repeat Itself? The Great Fire of 1910

The Great Fire of 1910 burned across 3 million acres and killed more than 80 people.

*This story is published under an article exchange with Pie Consulting & Engineering.

By Jon Schear

SUMMIT COUNTY — Harry Houdini was quoted as saying, “Fire has always been and seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of elements.”

With the approach of a hot, windy summer here in Colorado, these words have never sounded more true.

In a recent interview with America’s News Radio Network, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue deputy chief Jeff Berino alluded to the “perfect storm” conditions arising in the western region of the United States. According to Berino, who also works for Pie Consulting & Engineering as a wildfire investigator, today’s conditions are  reminiscent of the 3 million acre Big Burn of August, 1910; conditions could be ripe for another blaze of equal or greater intensity, he said.

Listen to the interview here.

Many factors contribute to the “perfect storm,” perhaps best understood as stages:

Stage 1: The Setup
A few specific things contribute to potential wildfire starts and typically involve the weather. A dry and hot climate is a major influence and is usually spurred on by early snowmelt and drought conditions (a consistent issue here in Colorado).

Without moisture in the air and soil, vegetation can dry out and die, which creates fuel for a wildfire to start. Adding to this are bark beetles, which can grow to epidemic rates in dry and hot weather, adding even more fuel in the form of dead trees.

Stage 2: Ignition
Weather is always a crucial factor in how wildfires start and spread. Lightning is one of the biggest ignition sources for wildfires. Other ignition sources include arson as well as human error.

Stage 3: Spread
Wind drives the spread of wildfires, along with the distribution of fuels. Plants such as eucalyptus, junipers and pampas grass burn very fast and add fuel to the wildfire because of the high resin content of their sap, as well as the oil concentration in their stems.

Terrain is the other big factor. Contrary to what seems logical, wildfires travel faster uphill than downhill because the heat will cook the vegetation along the hillside into a dry fuel. If wind conditions are right, a down-sweeping wind can actually keep a wildfire contained as it flows down a slope.

Stage 4: Merge
Wildfires merging are not a new phenomenon. The moderately sized fires of 1910 combined to form the Big Burn in Montana and Idaho because of the conditions laid out in the prior three stages, and just recently in May of 2012, two wildfires in Southwest New Mexico combined into one massive blaze.

The parallel between now and 1910
The 1910 fire season started in April, but intensified in mid-summer, with numerous reports of widespread fires coming in around Aug. 10. Ten days later, the Forest Service — believing the fires were mostly in hand — started releasing personnel.

Then, on Aug. 20, an epic windstorm swept through the region, fanning dying embers back to life and forcing numerous towns to evacuate, as firefighters and residents fled for their lives. At least 87 lives were lost in the blaze, which swept through a number of cities leaving behind a trail of blackened ruins.

The fire was also a key factor in generating political pressure that resulted in the Forest Service adopting a strategy of trying to suppress all wildfires, which potentially has  set the stage for another fire if similar magnitude.

Speculation has attributed the start of this fire to a few of the factors above. The hot and dry conditions of 1910 were similar to this year’s weather setup, including a very early Rocky Mountain snow melt season.

Because of this, the Forest Service may have been unprepared for what came next, when what were described as “hurricane-force winds” (Stage 3: Spread) fanned the flames of a few fires that had already started.

These moderate fires then turned into high-intensity blazes and combined together into a massive wildfire, with flames towering hundreds of feet into the air and spreading across hundreds of miles of th western landscape.

There is no doubt that numerous factors combined to generate a wildfire of this size, and the same synergy can be seen in Colorado with the recent High Park fire.

The fire spread west of Fort Collins, spurred  by the high winds, hot temperatures and lack of moisture. These factors were, in turn, aggravated by drought conditions and early snow melt. Adding to this predicament, are numerous other wildfires springing up over the state including the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs and the Pine Ridge fire.

Fortunately for now these fires have been miles apart and unable to merge, but the danger of the fourth stage being fulfilled is an ever-present fear in the minds of the firefighters working to extinguish the current wildfires. We can only hope that 100 percent containment comes sooner than later.

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