Boulder fire damage seen from space

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2011 7:00 am

As I write this, storm clouds are gathering in the west. That’s a pretty common situation here in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer. We get fine, clear mornings, and sometimes rain in the afternoon. In general big storms aren’t exactly rare, but this summer we’ve been getting pounded. On my bike rides it’s been routine to see the creeks in the area swollen to the point of overflowing.

But this summer, that situation has turned more dangerous. We’ve been getting some serious flood scares, and the reason may not be obvious to people who don’t live in the area: fires.

Last year, the Fourmile Canyon area north and west of Boulder burned pretty vigorously for many days. The smoke plume was visible from space, and it caused a lot of local grief. What wasn’t clear to me at the time was how this would affect flooding.

The image above, taken on June 7, 2011, is from NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite, and is a combination of far-infrared and visible light. Water (reservoirs and lakes) shows up as purple in this false-color image, vegetation is mostly green, and red/orange shows the fire damage. You can see Boulder to the lower right of the burned area.

When fire burns off all the plants, there’s nothing to hold the rain water in when we get storms. The water all washes downhill, in this case into the Fourmile Creek. That runs into the Boulder Creek, and that, well, here’s a natural color image which shows why that’s bad:

You can see the wiggly line that’s the Boulder Canyon, and the creek runs along it, out of the Foothills, and right through the heart of Boulder, which sits on what is essentially a flood plain. It’s been a while since there’s been a devastating flood here, but you can see that the creek opens up right at the western edge of town.

This year, as I said, we’ve been getting pummeled. A couple of weeks ago a storm dumped a lot of rain right on the Fourmile area. The creek surged, merged with the Boulder Creek, and a swell well over a meter high ran down into town. The damage was surprisingly minimal, but it was touch and go there for a while (some low-lying areas were evacuated, for example).

When I moved here, I thought Boulder was immune to the natural disasters I was used to: hurricanes (I grew up in Virginia), tornadoes (my wife’s family is from Kansas) and earthquakes (for six years we lived within a few klicks of the San Andreas fault). Floods didn’t occur to me at the time, but they’re on my mind now. I am nowhere near the flood plain, but I’m really fond of this little town, and I’m hoping things ease off soon.

My office window faces west, toward the mountains, and all I can think is that it’s going to be a long summer.

Related posts:

Boulder fire from space
Wildfire west of Boulder
Ephemeral snow and ancient rock
Windswept clouds over Boulder

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Comments (24)

  1. CosmicLint

    Death from the Mountains!


    Stay optimistic; I’m sure everything will be fine.

  2. Phil–you live in Colorado, and fire ain’t bad here. Fire is good. Fire is necessary. Fire is natural. What is unnatural, what is bad, what is unnecessary (except to protect life, limb, and property) is fire suppression. Forest fires are a vital part of the ecosystem, and the plants in the mountains outside of Boulder evolved in such a way that the ecosystem cannot be healthy without being renewed by forest fires every few decades. You really can’t call the results of a forest fire “damage.” It is not “damage.” It is renewal, it is an opportunity for regrowth by pioneer species.

    And as for floods, Boulder has a long history. Here are some photographs of the “Great Boulder Flood of 1894.”

  3. DrFlimmer

    Weird. I cannot really visualize these pictures: For me the canyons and creeks look like ridges. So, exactly the other way around…

    If you really want to escape all natural disasters: Come to my hometown in Germany. There is really nothing to fear. No earthquakes, no hurricanes, no tornadoes, even no really severe thunderstorms. A few kilometres away the world can go down in flood and fire, but where I grew up there will be nothing!

    So, I hope Boulder and you will both make it through.
    Btw: Where exactly can we find your place on that pictures? ūüėČ

  4. Patrick

    We’ve had similar problems here in New Mexico and nearby Arizona; it’s recently made national news. The areas around the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is subject to flooding any time there are forest fires. LANL has expertise in this sort of problem. Contact them if you can.

  5. AtomicTommy

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen a good rain here in Houston…can you send some of it our way, Phil? :)

  6. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    . . . Boulder, which sits on what is essentially a flood plain

    Erm … well, I think I see your problem.

    I recall some flooding a few years ago in the UK, and the TV news crews were interviewing some residents of Gloucester who lived in a new housing development called Meadow Close. They were complaining about how little the city council was doing for them, and none of the televised interviewees spotted that the name of the development was a whopping big clue.

    On a separate occasion, the town of Tewkesbury was especially hard hit by flooding (this would have been in either ’07 or ’08), and I don’t recall anyone being particularly whiny about it. Tewkesbury sits at the confluence of the Severn (which I think is England’s second- or third- largest river) and the Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon, as opposed to any of the three other River Avons in the UK). The lock between the two rivers is permanently manned, and the lock-keeper’s house is on 6-foot stilts (you can actually walk under the house as long as you are not too tall), but on this occasion he had to be rescued because the water levels rose so fast that his boat got stuck underneath the house and he could not get it out (it was jammed by its own bouyancy and the water level).

    Tewkesbury has been there for about 1000 years (the abbey there celebrated its 950th anniversary about 20 or 30 years ago), and several of the buildings on the High Street are about 350 years old. After the floods, the cleaning up.

  7. Nigel Depledge

    Still, I hope Boulder gets a pass on this one.

  8. drow

    what? flooding? in boulder? run for it! but wait, no. the Sink is way up on the hill. nevermind, it’ll be fine.

  9. When I was spending my summers there, I remember the Boulder Creek bicycle path (which was my main commuting route) being underwater on several occasions. There was a lot of controversy about development in the floodplain.

  10. Magisterical

    #1 > Weird. I cannot really visualize these pictures: For me the canyons and creeks look like ridges.

    I see them as ridges too. If you flip the image vertically though they look like canyons. It’s the same optical illusion that makes craters look like pancakes depending on where the light is coming from in the pic!

  11. Josie

    We get the same situation here in San Diego –probably a little more frequently though :(

    There is no way I would ever by a house on a hillside with stilts here. Lots of people do though. I bet they’re the same people who think they can live in San Diego County and not maintain an evacuation kit.

  12. Tog

    Back in the Early 80’s, Salt Lake City got hit with a flood-volume of water. They actually closed off some streets, sandbagged the road to about 3-4 feet high, and ran City Creek through downtown on the surface roads. As I recall, it worked very well.

    Worth considering at any rate.

  13. Nick

    John McPhee’s “The Control Of Nature” is a fun read, and its history of fires and flooding in Southern California particularly relevant here. He also notes that some chaparral leaves contain wax which, when burned, seeps into the soil and creates a hydrophobic layer a couple inches down — setting up perfect conditions for a landslide come the next rainfall.

    As far as building on a floodplain, or in a canyon, or on fill in an earthquake zone (I’m looking at you, San Francisco) — the root of the problem is humans have a much, much shorter memory than geology does. The plain might flood only every hundred years, but that’s long enough that nobody alive has experienced it. Hard to keep policy based on such timescales.

  14. Charles D.

    What’s interesting is that you can see all the other recent fires on the larger satellite image as well (click the first image to see it). The 2003 Jamestown fire is the long swath to the north of the Fourmile area. The 1989 (?) Black Tiger fire is the fainter patch to the south. Ditto the one near Gross Reservoir, and so forth. As more time passes, these fire scars become less and less visible. As the first commenter rightly notes, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem here and it’s only the human element that makes it tragic. And decades of poor fire management has made recent fires more catastrophic.

  15. Jeremy S

    The first sentence of this post is somewhat Tolkien-esque.

  16. JohnK

    Send us (Texas) as much water as you want. We will take it all.


    We have 100 and 500 floodplains in the costal areas of Texas. Every 20 of so years, a hurricane reminds of that fact [we don’t reach the 100 year level, but it comes close). Some areas reached the 100 year level during hurricane Ike Even with mother nature’s reminders, some idiots still build at sea level.

    My house is at a outrageous height of 22 feet above sea level.

  17. Georg

    I had difficulties to see the images “right”, The southern slopes the valleyes are
    darker (greener) for some reason, and this lend to the well known effect
    that the valleys turned into ridges and vice versa :=(
    (I think You know this effect, one always assumes the light coming from “top”
    or top-left One can make funny pics of mountains from craters by that trick)
    After mirroring the picture north/south everything was right :=)
    BTW: Where did Boulder get its name from ? Lot of boulders or
    from a Mr. Boulder?

  18. csrster

    It’s also not many years since Fort Collins was hit by a deadly flood, and that’s very similar terrain not very far north of Boulder. I remember once hearing the sirens go off in downtown Boulder during a huge thunderstorm – and having no idea whether it was a flood warning or a tornado warning!

  19. Bill

    Living in Arizona, I’m all too familiar with the cycle of wildfires burning off all the cover, leaving nothing behind to catch and hold the water when the inevitable rains hit. We’ve had state highways closed a few times in recent years because of mudslides (in Arizona!) that have washed downhill and buried a highway.

    This can put a world of hurt on some popular summer tourism spots – that nice, cool, forested summer getaway that’s normally a three hour drive from Phoenix may take three times as long to get by the fastest detour.

  20. Ryan H

    @ DrFlimmer (post #3): that’s actually an optical illusion that’s been well-documented right here on this blog. If you save the photo to your computer and flip it 180 degrees, the canyons and creeks will be immediately recognizable as such, instead of looking like ridges.

  21. I recall a story about Richard Feynman: he moved out to, I think, California, and the first year he was out there there were really bad forest fires, and he immediately bought flood insurance, to the consternation of his neighbors. The next year, as he expected, the region experienced tremendous floods in the absence of trees and vegetation.

    UPDATE: Here’s the story, copied and recopied on the internet in numerous places:

    “According to Professor Steven Frautschi, a colleague of Feynman, Feynman was the only person in the Altadena region to buy flood insurance after the massive 1978 fire, predicting correctly that the fire’s destruction would lead to land erosion, causing mudslides and flooding. The flood occurred in 1979 after winter rains and destroyed multiple houses in the neighborhood.”

    BONUS: Here’s the story as retold by a scraper who modified the text – possibly through multiple translations – to avoid getting caught:

    “Based on data from Prof Steven Frautschi, a colleague of Feynman, Feynman was a exclusively individual in a Altadena vicinity to purchase flood insurance when the massive 1978 fire, predicting right that the fire’s destruction would lead to erosion, stimulating mudslides and swollen. Noah & the flood occurred within 1979 fallowing wintertime rains and destroyed multiple houses in the front yard.”

  22. JB of Brisbane

    Don’t talk to me about flooding…

  23. Smitty

    @ Rich Orman
    I agree, but there are caveats that I would like to add to that for the modern age.

    It is true that Mother Nature will heal the Earth from many forms of damage that are done. It may be it takes a couple years, other cases it takes a couple thousand years.

    However, as responsible citizens of this planet, I think we should help out in ways that we know won’t prove detrimental in the future. Perhaps in the case of forest fires, containing the fire, rather than putting them out or preventing them in the first place. (I know that this fire in particular got out of hand, and it was a desperate situation for a while.)

    For example, years ago in MA, the parks department came to the decision that one of the State forests was over grown. It was a seriously old growth forest and a forest fire would have devastated not only the forest, but also many of the towns in the area. So, they opened it up for controlled logging to civilians. (Meaning not big companies) Prospective lumberjacks would sign up and take a class on controlled logging and were monitored by the rangers. From what I recall, the program was a success.

    Whether the tree hugging eco-mentalists like it or not, Humans live on Earth. A lot of Humans. We owe it to our home and to Mother Nature to help out where we can. Because whether the root cause of a “natural” event is truly natural or the root is sourced to humans, subsequent events Mommy Nature throws at us will make living here really hard.

  24. don gisselbeck

    Nearly every draw in Western Montana has an aluvial fan at the bottom. Since none of them appear to be growing now, it looks like fire followed by rain must be the cause.


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