On the Road with Wildfires

Steve Monaco, a photographer in Colorado Springs, put together a 5 day time-lapse shoot of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Watching the progression of the smoke and flames is powerful stuff, and the music is extremely well chosen. It’s just over 16 minutes long, but I ended up getting sucked in and watched the whole thing. Twice.

Having lived in Southern Cal. (’91 through ’99) and Colorado (’02-’04), I’m no stranger to wildfires. They are frighteningly unpredictable beasts that leave me feeling rather helpless. Unfortunately, these fires are a common occurrence each and every summer, and last summer I saw evidence of past fires throughout Utah, as well as the fires that burned through so much of New Mexico.

Back in ’09, a fire spread up the western side of the road along the canyon, and you can still see the charred husks of trees along the roadside and across the valley.

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It was an odd juxtaposition of images… A westward view revealed the power and devastation of fire, yet the view east was one of majestic beauty.

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I came across more fires a few days later in New Mexico. After camping north of Albuquerque, I headed east to have breakfast with some friends in Espanola. Riding through Los Alamos, I pulled over in a park-and-ride and got a glimpse across the valley at the fire buying in the Santa Fe National Forest:

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I motored down the mountain and into Espanola for a late breakfast with Lisa and Kip. When we finished and walked out of the restaurant, roughly 3 hours after I took the picture in Los Alamos, this is what we saw:

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(My memory is battling with my journal notes. My notes indicate I took this photo looking west from the restaurant parking lot, but for some reason I think it’s another picture of the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest. The outline of the mountains look far too similar to the one I know is from Los Alamos.)

In the time we sat and chatted over breakfast burritos and enchiladas, a fire had broken out near Los Alamos. By the end of the day, they were already considering evacuations.

My route for the afternoon took me up and around Carson National Forest and down the eastern edge of the Santa Fe National Forest. Earlier in the year, a fire burned through the northern portion of Carson, and the road I was on (I think it was rt 285) was used as a firebreak. The damage didn’t seem as severe as Bryce, but it was quite obvious, nonetheless:

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As I moved south through the Santa Fe National Forest, I could taste the smoke and ash from the fires burning some 40 miles to the west. It hung thick in the air and stung my eyes and throat eve through my full-face helmet. A 20 minute hydration break even left a dusting of ash on the seat of the GS.

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I made camp at a KOA in Las Vegas, NM. The wind came in from the west all night, and the tent and bike received another dusting of ash from the fires now over 40 miles away. More impressive, though, was the sun rising to the east, away from the fires but through the smoke. I just wish I was able to get better pictures of it, as it was one of the eeriest things I have ever seen.

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Back in the present day…

It took firefighters 5 days to get the Waldo Canyon fire to just 15% contained last week. It still burns, but it is now 100% contained and some of the evacuees have been allowed to return home. With 2 deaths, over 340 structures burned, damages estimated to climb over $110 million in the loss of homes alone, this wildfire is already being called the worst in state history.

And unfortunately, the Waldo fire is just one of four wildfires in Colorado. Be careful out there if you’re planning on camping for the July 4th holiday. The top five causes for wildfires are all attributed, however inadvertently, to humans:

  1. Unattended campfires
  2. Unsupervised activities (child error) and/or fireworks
  3. Cigarettes
  4. Motorized equipment and engine sparks
  5. Burning debris

Below is a gallery of all the pictures, including a few others of Bryce Canyon:

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