Smoke shrouds the mountains near Boulder during the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010. The fire was one of many human-caused fires to strike the area in recent years. ©Charles Anderson, 2010.
Fire management has changed substantially from the days when I was seasonally employed as a smoke jumper. Back then, a lightning storm would move across the open wilderness of the Idaho panhandle dropping flashes of nature’s magic. Sometimes, hundreds of fires would be started from these storms.
Those fires were remote and we called them “the good deal fires.” There were no homes or people to protect; it was just Mother Nature’s beauty. Often we would camp for days, corralling and watching the fire as it spread across the landscape. Fire created a natural disturbance that ensured the ecosystem was in balance.
Today managing fires requires a different approach. As the Wildland Fire Management Officer for Boulder County, I work full-time, all year around. That sea of green is now a complex mixture of homes, infrastructure, and trees. Human encroachment, in many forms, has changed how fires occur and how we deal with them.
Homes back up to forest landscapes. Infrastructure development, such as dams, change the way rivers flow and electrical lines crisscross and dissect the forest. These built features have not only changed how the environment looks; they have also changed the values we associate with natural landscapes. Human disturbance is now the next lightning storm and, unlike the beautiful and momentary flashes of a lightning bolt, our actions will have a much greater duration and impact.
The people, homes, and infrastructure at risk now force us to interrupt the natural and required disturbance of wildfire. Decades of suppression have resulted in a more unhealthy, overgrown, and disease ridden forest. Fire has been removed from the natural equation and the ecosystem is on the verge of being unbalanced.
In Boulder, social and political leaders identified the impacts of human development early enough to limit growth and take steps to reduce urban sprawl. Yet even those forward-thinking efforts weren’t enough—we still face the wildland urban interface (WUI) problems that many other communities struggle with across the nation.
Recently, a 74-acre fire in Sunshine Canyon, west of Boulder, cost nearly $750,000 to fight—nearly $10,000 per acre. The expense of fighting fires in the WUI is steadily increasing and it is unknown how much property or life will be lost before we’re motivated make a change.
One thing that can be done is to collectively address the human impact. Recent research from Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder found that 84 percent of wildfires are human-caused. Arson, unattended campfires, illegal burning, outdoor shooting, downed power lines, train sparks, and other human causes have outpaced natural sources of wildfire. It’s these incidents—both accidental and purposeful—are now becoming overwhelming ignition sources.
In Boulder, we face the ever-growing development of our WUI, as well as an another emerging challenge—homelessness. After the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent housing market crash, homelessness has become an increasing issue. Studies indicate this vulnerable population is steadily increasing in many Western communities, most likely thanks to a temperate climate, generous population, and strong economy. Affluent communities like Boulder are also more attractive because they offer access to resources like shelters, free transportation, and food and clothing
The homeless sometimes choose to relocate into nearby forested areas. In some cases—outside of Nederland, Colorado, for instance—entire small communities have been established as wilderness camps. These remote communities don’t have formal laws or regulations, so even with the best intentions of a peaceful existence there can be the potential for criminal activity, health issues, and reckless or careless behavior.
The 2016 Cold Springs Fire near Nederland was caused by the carelessness of traveling campers from Alabama. Eight homes were lost and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent fighting it. Even more eye-opening, however, is the cultural change that occurred in the nearby community.
Before the fire, Nederland residents accepted the Boulder transient population and took pride in their uniquely welcoming culture. After the fire, though, many were angry, confused, and wanted answers. Numerous community meetings were held and groups on both sides of the homeless issue had heated conversations on social media and in public forums. The situation escalated to a point where an unfortunate outcome was nearly assured until, luckily, a solution was found.
The Nederland Area Interagency Council on Homeless Encampments (NICHE) formed in response to the ever-growing tension. NICHE members included federal, state, county and municipal governments along with private citizens, business owners, nonprofits, religious groups, and congressional representatives. The group met regularly and soon partnered with neighboring cities facing the same issue.
Today, the tension in the community has subsided and the homeless community is once again welcome. But now there are boundaries and expectations around “living wild.” Local law enforcement actively patrols remote camping areas and identifies those who need help. They educate on—and, if needed, enforce— rules that limit irresponsible activity. There is a long road ahead, but the future looks better than the past.
In my mind, NICHE is an example of how we will fight wildfires in the future. It will take all of the stakeholders coming to the table to find the best solutions. Not one fire agency will be able to fight these mega-fires of the future, nor will we be able to solve the problems associated with rising economic inequality and homelessness.
As such, partnerships and collaboration offer a path forward for fire managers. Multi-objective fire management, increased prescribed-fire use, partnerships with local groups, and homeowners taking a bigger role in mitigating risk must be what the future holds.
It’s a simple answer. None of us can stand alone. Together we can change the unwanted outcomes that alone may feel inevitable.
Jay Stalnacker is the Wildland Fire Management Officer for Boulder County where he coordinates all-hazard and wildland fire preparedness, mitigation and response. He is a Colorado-certified Type 3 All-Hazards Incident Commander and serves in this role for the Boulder County Incident Management Team.
Stalnacker is a former State of Colorado Police Officer, a Boulder County Sheriff SWAT Team tactical medic, and has proudly served as an elite U.S. Forest Service smokejumper.