Monday, June 25, 2012

Colorado Forest Fires: Perspective

So my state, like many others, is dry and burning - partly due to lightning, partly due to human beings.  The smoke is constantly in the air, the news covers little else, and I have Inciweb open all day long.  The High Park fire is along a stunningly beautiful canyon and river, the Waldo Canyon fire is where I went hiking as a kid, and the Weber fire is near Mesa Verde, one of the most humbling ancient sites in the country. 

Being a history geek, I wanted context, perspective, a sense of where this fits, so I hit the Colorado historic newspaper archive to see what turned up.  Here are a few of the gems I found.

Record Journal of Douglas County, June 3, 1939
From 1939, a fireworks-ban story so relevant that it could have been reprinted yesterday, with virtually no changes to the wording.

From 1944, a prescient prediction that the helicopter developments made in WWII will revolutionize firefighting in difficult terrain.

Record Journal of Douglas County, Oct. 6, 1944

And finally, a scene so dramatic that the current fires seem quite tame in comparison:

Though there is comfort in seeing the cycle of forest fires, the differences between then and now are also startling.  The idea that so many mountain lions and black bears would pour out from a fire, and that the firemen would stand so brutally against them, is pretty much unfathomable today.

As they fought these fires, they were looking at them in a really different way - the timber was a resource to lose more than an ecosystem to cherish.  There was no questions of letting things burn - these were assets to be protected.

And there clearly weren't the structural concerns that are at the forefront of even the most remote of Colorado's forest fires today.  The forest were places to work, and possibly play,
but not to live - summer cottages are lost, but not homes.

Record Journal of Douglas County, July 3, 1908
So on the one hand, we seem to value the forests in a more ecological way today, appreciating their value as an environment without as much of the timber industry factor.  On the other hand, the increased proximity of people and forest means that there aren't these dramatic animal scenes, because the forests are relatively empty. 

It reminds me of another burning, best told by Douglas Adams in his book Last Chance to See, of the Sibylline Books.  All the knowledge of the world is contained in the books, but the price for them is more than the people are willing to pay, so the Sybil burns half the books.  Finally, the people are desperate for the knowledge, but only one of the twelve books remains unburned.  They pay all they have for the one book that remains, never knowing what they lost to the fires in their earlier greed.  Adams likens the story to our environment - who knows what knowledge we are losing in our destruction of rainforests, arctic tundra, coral reefs, and timberlands? 

The WWF is trying to record our most beloved places, if you haven't told a story yet, do so at Earth Book 2012Mine is about the grasslands of Wyoming.  Celebrate the wild places we still have, and the brave people fighting to protect them and the homes nearby.

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