The scars of a Colorado fire

By Phil Plait | July 29, 2012 7:15 am

A few weeks ago, Colorado fires raged. They are still there, but mostly out and contained – the Boulder fire is completely contained, but pockets of fire will probably burn at a low level for weeks and be put out as they’re found.

South of us, in Colorado Springs, the wildfire was apocalyptic. It destroyed over 18,000 acres (72 square kilometers, 28 square miles) and many buildings and houses. The scar it left behind is visible even from space, especially in the infrared, as in this image from the Earth-observing Terra satellite:

[Click to conflagrate.]

The way this image is color-coded, ironically vegetation looks red while fire-ravaged areas are greenish. The scale bar at the lower left should give you a sense of how big this fire was. Most of the houses destroyed were in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, which is labeled. A vast amount of effort by firefighters went in to making sure the fire didn’t progress farther down the slope of the foothills.

Images like this one can help people assess the extent of fire damage. And they serve as a reminder that our environment can be tragically fragile. To some extent it’s a natural process – this fire, along with the one in Boulder and the huge one west of Fort Collins were all started by lightning during thunderstorms. But our presence changes some of these processes, and we make some things better and others worse. The more we understand how fires start, how they spread, and how to stop them, the better. Watching all three fires both from the ground (in the case of the Boulder fire, in person as well) and from space is something I’d prefer not to have to do again.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Comments (12)

  1. Mark

    Actually, the cause of the Waldo Canyon fire (near Colorado Springs) is still under investigation. It is thought to be human caused and not the result of lightning.

  2. Dave

    The Denver Post published on Friday an article that says the report on the cause MAY be released within two weeks.

  3. noen

    Cue up for the denialist shills in 3… 2… 1…

  4. Georg

    There are
    two bigger areas within the burned region where the fire
    did not rage.
    What was reason for that “islands”? Changing directions of winds?
    Are that areas more humid (lower)?

  5. Rupert MacLanahan

    Yet again we see an example of total ignorance of the ecology of the mountains of Colorado.

    Phil seems to have the mindset that fire=bad. While that may be true in some places, it is not true in the mountains of the Front Range of Colorado. The forest ecosystem in that area evolved in a semi-arid environment that has historically seen dry summers, especially when the North American Monsoon is not strong (as was the case in June, which is before the North American Monsoon generally starts).

    The forest ecosystems evolved to be burned every 150 years or so. After the fire you get so-called “pioneer species” like aspen trees, and those species are generally out-competed by evergreen trees like pine and spruce, and we are left with an evergreen forest. Indeed, the presence of recently burned areas and areas that have been burned in the past provides ecological diversity that we would not otherwise have. Also, the fact that we act so quickly to stop forest fires only makes them larger and “more destructive” due to the obvious increase in fuel.

    Of course the loss of property and life is a tragedy, the forest itself is not “destroyed” as Phil puts it. It is transformed into a different stage of ecological development as has been happening in this ecosystem for a very long time. The cause of the fire is not important, as naturally started and artificially started fires have the same ecological effect.

  6. You know, the phrase “visible from space” doesn’t have quite the kick it once did. I mean, these days, my *car* is visible from space. Heck, I can almost make out my TV antenna.

  7. Gary

    “Tragically fragile” is a loaded term and not really accurate with respect to ecosystems. “Dynamic” is better because fire is natural and ecosystems recover. This is *not* to minimize human contribution to ecosystem changes. The tragedy is lost property and sadly in some cases, lives.

  8. Brian Too

    One wonders about the long-term sustainability of semi-rural lifestyles. Lots of people move out into idyllic countryside homes simply to get away from the bustle and crowding of the cities. They usually long for trees, some wildlife (although they usually draw the line at large predators), and the sounds and smells of nature.

    However those landscapes are very vulnerable to fires and real protection involves clearing all trees and ground litter out a good 100 m away from buildings and other valuables. And this cannot wait until a fire approaches. It must be a permanent or near permanent state of affairs. That does not quite match the usual ideal of a tree-shaded home.

    I suppose you could have a fire break outside of a permanent living zone, with trees within. However you start needing quite a substantial plot of land to make such spacing happen.

  9. @3. noen : “Cue up for the denialist shills in 3… 2… 1…”

    I think they’re all concentrating on the other ‘Icebergs Off Greenland’ thread – but, then again, famous last words .. 😉

    As an Aussie living in a bushfire zone, yeah, this is eerily familiar and somewhat disturbing stuff.

    Yes, fire is a natural part of our environment and this region’s dynamic ecology. The Indigneous Australians have even had for tens of thousands of years a practice of “firestick farming” although I’m not sure about locally.

    But recent fires have been bad, the ecology has been altered – olives and pines don’t respond in the same way as eucalypts and native scrub – and we’re here now in different times and circumstances including climate change caused worse droughts, heatwaves and, yes, worse bushfires too. The Canberra and Victoria and Sydney bushfires in the past five years or so being recent extreme and tragic Aussie examples.

    When you’ve a house full of books and pets and all, its a major concern.

    Be prepared, have a plan, hope for the best, be ready for the worst.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    S ee :

    for the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires which killed 173 people – the worst in our history.

    Plus see :

    for the 2003 Canberra bushfires which claimed the Mt Stromlo observatory as well as four lives and 500 plus homes and burnt well into the suburban outskirts of our national capital.

    As well as seeing :

    for more on Aussie bushfires generally.

  11. Matt B.

    @9 MTU – I love your typo “Indigneous”. It sounds like a cross among “indigenous”, “igneous” and “indignant”. It reminds me of a friend’s coinage: “ignihilate”, to annihilate by fire.

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Matt B. : Um, cheers, I guess. Complete accident. :-)


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