Nature’s Fireworks… Wildfire

Nature’s Fireworks… Wildfire

By Curtis Walker, SOARS Protégé

Smoke billows from the Flatirons west of Boulder
Smoke billows from the Flatirons west of Boulder.

Last winter, much of the U.S. saw above average temperatures and less snowfall than usual. People across the country enjoyed a spring-like (and sometimes even summer-like) winter. The mild weather does not come without a price. During the winter, ski slopes and other tourist activities lost profits. Months later the price is being paid in the form of wildfire, an unpredictable and untamable force of nature.

Colorado, in particular, saw relatively mild and dry conditions in late winter and spring, with much less spring snow than usual. This pattern has continued into the summer with hot and dry weather thanks to a region of high pressure keeping storm systems that could provide cooler, wetter weather away. As of today, Denver has already reached triple digit temperatures on six days this year, more than any other year. Two of those days saw Denver match its all-time record high temperature of 105°F. Many have seen the tragic images from parts of Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. My thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost homes and loved ones, and the firefighters who are trying to quench the flames that burn wherever the wind may take them.

I’ve been in Boulder, Colorado as a Protégé with the UCAR SOARS program this summer as the fires have burned. I am going to share with you my first “wildfire” experience from last week’s nearby Flagstaff Fire.

On Tuesday, June 26, 2012, around 1:00pm, I joined a group of interns watching the stormy skies. We were all hopeful for a brief downpour to cool things down. Instead, we received quite a lightning show. Several bolts struck along the Flatirons and I remember commenting, “That’s not good. Dry lightning - this is exactly what causes fires.” Little did any of us know that during our amusement with nature, trouble was brewing behind the first ridge of the Foothills. One of those lightning strikes had started a 6-acre wildfire that would quickly burn to nearly 300-acres.

Foothills engulfed in smoke blowing towards South Boulder.
Foothills engulfed in smoke blowing towards South Boulder
As the Sun sets on the wildfire crews continue their efforts to quench the flames from spreading.
As the Sun sets on the wildfire, crews continue their efforts to quench the flames from spreading

Around 2:00pm, a friend sent me a text and asked if I was alright because they had heard a fire was burning near NCAR. I was puzzled, but immediately wondered if the dry lightning had sparked something. A Google search did not take long to reveal the images from behind the NCAR’s Mesa Lab of a growing smoke plume. A few co-workers and I headed towards the railroad tracks outside of the Foothills lab where we work in northeast Boulder. I proceeded to take several photos of the black plume rising above the Foothills in southwest Boulder. I took several more photos on the way home while heading down Foothills Parkway.

When I got back to my apartment after work I stared in amazement at one of the flare ups. You could actually see the flames engulfing a tree that was probably somewhere between 15 and 20 feet high! From my apartment windows I watched as various aircraft arrived on the scene and proceeded to drop various solutions in an attempt to curb the flames.

Now while I was not in the pre-evacuation zone, I was certainly not far from it. Growing up, my friends and I would always play these games asking each other if we could only take one item in an emergency event what would it be and why. Well for the first time ever, I actually found myself considering what items I might take if it ever came down to a ten minutes-or-less evacuation order.

Fortunately for the city of Boulder and me, crews were able to gain the upper-hand on the fire relatively quickly. In its aftermath, many of the surrounding towns have canceled their firework displays. While our ordeal may have been brief, it is imperative to note that the fire season is far from over. The hot and dry weather will likely continue with chances for more dry thunderstorms capable of sparking wildfires. While some may be disappointed by the lack of fireworks shows this Fourth of July holiday, just remember that nature’s fireworks can do plenty of damage. We don’t need to add more ways to ignite the fires.

I wish the best to everyone dealing with wildfires this year and the crews attempting to tame the fires.

Curtis Walker is a third year SOARS Protégé. He recently graduated from the State University of New York College at Oneonta with his B.S. in Meteorology and will soon be starting graduate school in Atmospheric Science at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Find out more about Curtis Walker's research and the SOARS Program.