Monday, July 23, 2012

One photographer's take on the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon Fire

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 5:56 PM

While many of us have gawked at the burned traces of the Waldo Canyon Fire from afar, the immediate landscape paints a far more visceral picture. Trees blistered into rot, a ground springy with scorched debris, root fires still simmering below the surface. In an apocalyptic touch, insects scurry about the blight.

Brad Flora, a local photographer, traveled up to the scar to document the damage and the beginning restoration efforts. Here are his impressions, in both photography and words.

(Interestingly, when we wrote about Flora's work back in 2010, he shared a recent photo he'd shot of a firefighter's jacket on the pavement. At the time, they'd just put out a house fire.)

July 4th, 2012, Colorado Springs — The view is thick as the few still smoldering zones release burning matter slowly toward the sky. A thermal inversion — cold air pushing the hot smoke down — blankets our view of the peak and the city of Manitou, far below, with a blue haze. I sit in the passenger seat of the truck as it bounces its way along Rampart Range Road. The driver is Norm Rooker, Public Information Officer and a member of the Type 1 Federal Management Team assigned to the Waldo Canyon Fire.­ We are returning to town after a day spent photographing in the charred woods. I photographed and he, as my guide, told me where it was safe to stand.

A slurry-bombed van along Rampart Range Road
  • Brad Flora
  • "A slurry-bombed van along Rampart Range Road"

I was, and continue to be, humbled by the destruction that trained the land into a series of perpendicular reliefs: smooth, soft ground or bare, fire-eaten snags. For most of the day the only natural life I saw was insect: red ants, a stink bug, and in proliferation throughout the afternoon, little tan moths whose frenetic actions brought an ironic tang of joy to the devastated landscape. The bird’s song was a near constant presence; I especially recall hearing it in the patchwork areas where the destruction of the forest was incomplete. The only avian life I saw was late in the day, when two juncos flew down and landed on a patch of partly-charred ground, happily searching for all those insects which now had nowhere to hide.

At one point I ask to stop and take a picture. Norm happily obliges. His job is to help me get some good photos, right after he makes sure that I stay safe. The biggest risk is snags, dead trees still standing with a fire-eaten base. Sometimes he walks in front of me, knocking on burned-out columns of wood with his pulaski (an all-purpose firefighting tool) to make sure they’re stable. As we walk, I feel the ground give slightly beneath me. It feels like walking on ashy angel-food cake. With each step I sink a few inches into the new, nutrient rich soil. “Is it safe for me to walk fifteen feet that way?” I say, pointing towards a group of aspens, their bases charred but the tops still silver-white. “If you walk around those two trees there and there,” he points to some very specific trunks, which look decomposed and rotted at the bottom. The fire has swept through this part of the forest very hot, but the topography of the land had leveled it out, helping to keep it low to the ground. This movement of the fire kept the tops of the trees green, with leaves dry and wilted but unburnt. The base of the trees, however, looks like moldy cheese with the fuzz scraped away, exactly as if something had eaten into them. These trees are dangerous. A strong wind could easily topple them, putting my hardhat to the test if I happen to be in the way. Norm’s job is to makes sure that if a tree falls in the forest, I’m nowhere near it. I step gingerly across the gray green landscape. Everywhere there are fallen aspen leaves, some still full of chlorophyll, standing in stark contrast to the coal-stained ground.

I smell burnt pine, dangerously pleasant, as I kneel to photograph in front of a root fire. Norm instructs me to get no closer than seven feet to the base of the tree. He says that there may be hollow areas, carved from the earth as the fire ate the tree up underground, which may cave in if I put my weight on them. Most likely, that would result in no more than a six-inch drop — not much trouble for us with the heavy leather boots we’re wearing — but the implied danger is the risk of falling into a still-active root fire, one in which the smoldering suddenly turns to flame as the ground opens up and brings oxygen to task. I keep my distance.

Norm tells me that this is already the worst fire year on record. He says that developers — and demand — create homes in wooded areas. Combine that with drought and increasingly common high winds and he says that the Woodland Urban Interface (or WUI pronounced “woohee”) will continue to face increased threat of fire.

Norm and I are outside the truck again, this time while I take a portrait of a young Hotshot, his face screened by a red beard and dark glasses. He says he’s here from Montana, and as we part ways he leaves me with the oft-said farewell of all woodland firefighters, ”Be safe.”

It’s 90 degrees out and we’re wearing long, stiff pants and full-length fire-resistant shirts. I’m in a “cold” zone; no active fires nearby, and just walking up and down the hill hunting for pictures I break into a sweat. At one point, while stopped and chatting with a crew boss, I was regaled with a tale of a Hotshot crew preparing more than 14,000 — yes fourteen-thousand — feet of hose, and then moving it into the woods as preparation for the defense of the then-evacuated mountain town of Woodland Park. He said that he had created over five fallback positions and escape routes, all of which would have had to fail as individual fire lines before Woodland Park would have been in danger. While he was sharing this story with me by the side of the road I watched men, each carrying one section of hose, emerge from the woods one at a time to dump their load in a pile. After the task was completed, one clowned around for his friends: pretending to be extremely fatigued, stumbling over himself to then fall down slapstick (much to my surprise). He then sprang up with a grin and calmly situated himself in the shade next to his buddies while they too, grinning and rested, wait for new orders.

The danger of woodland firefighting has been mitigated, somewhat, through a number of factors. Mistakes made that led to fatalities are cataloged, analyzed, and taken seriously. There is no room for ego in this line of work ... or at least not the egotistical selfishness that can be seen as such a prevalent force in America today (think Jersey Shore). In many regards firefighting is an anti-egoistic line of work. While on the line you must make decisions that are based entirely on what will be the safest, smartest move for all involved. Any room for error might dissolve with a simple change of the weather.

Before we parted ways, Norm handed me a little orange spiral bound book, saying as he did, “Every single line and every item in that book exists because someone died or some catastrophe got out of control.” It’s full of serious, practical commentary and instruction that has arisen from direct experience. The book encourages leaders to listen, subordinates to speak up when concerned, and all involved to be willing to accept the responsibility of their positions. It also includes a multitude of additional information, like HazMat classifications, which direction to approach a helicopter, how to create a touch-down pad for said helicopter, aerial retardant safety, and “first aid guidelines”, among many other subjects. The firefighters know this book by heart, which is sort of the point; it never hurts to have a cheat sheet when test time comes.

Slurry on green leaves

When fighting fires, if you do something wrong as a team, as an individual, or as a leader, and unless you are extremely lucky, you will experience an immediate and direct negative response that could be catastrophic to your goals and could lead to a loss of life. Even when everything is done right the fire is sometimes beyond control. Why not hedge your bets by carrying a reminder of your field's best practices?

We have just completed a circuit up and back to the Rampart Range Reservoir, which represents the fire’s most northwestern boundary. The land here is like a patchwork quilt: big areas of green surrounded by large swaths of total devastation. Looking out the window I see trees only slightly singed. Apparently there is a chance that some of them may drop their needles, and then sprout new ones over the coming seasons. Norm was optimistic about the future of the burn scar, and it was hard not to feel the same. There was a rising spirit of vitality across the land. It reminded me that regardless of what we humans plan and how we proceed forward with our “management” of the forest, Mother Nature will always have the last word.

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