by Michael W. Childers
For a number of weeks this past summer, images of walls of flame ripping through neighborhoods outside of the Colorado cities of Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Fort Collins garnered national attention. Declared the most expensive fire season in the state’s history, the Colorado fires underlined the increasingly problematic relationship between the West’s continuously expanding metropolitan areas and nature. While the fires outside of Ft. Collins (Colorado’s fifth largest city) and Boulder (the state’s eleventh largest city) burned several thousands of acres they caused relatively little private property damage. In contrast, the Waldo Canyon Fire just outside of Colorado Springs (Colorado’s second largest city), burned 18,247 acres, and ravaged whole subdivisions on the city’s periphery. Burning 346 homes, insurance claims are well over $350 million to date.
We know the reasons why so many catastrophic wildfires raged across the West this past spring and summer. Two extremely wet years were followed by the worst drought in over a half a century left Western forests primed for fire. Combined with over a century of suppression and population growth, the Waldo Canyon Fire was the unhappy confluence of two of the most poignant forces of the past century that have come to shape the modern America West – urbanization and nature resource management.
The West is at once the most urban and rural region within the United States. Well over 90 percent of the region’s population call a metropolitan area home, while at the same time the West is home to the vast majority of the nation’s public lands. Both have historically driven the West’s economy—the cities as hubs of commerce and transportation, as well as growth machines, and public lands as sources of natural resources and amenities. But following World War II, the region underwent an incredible period of population growth shifting the center of American gravity shifted westward. And as western metropolises sprawled ever further outward as at remarkable pace, the U.S. Forest Service expanded its own ability to suppress wildfires through the use bulldozers, trucks, and aircraft. As metro areas like those along Colorado’s Front Range have continued to grow so too did the suppression of fires in adjacent national forests and other public lands. The combination of which has led to some deadly, and expensive, consequences.