By Rachel Colchete
The mountains near Salida, Colorado have never been a stranger to the occasional wildfire, but as the climate grows increasingly arid and people move closer to forest boundaries, these formerly inconsequential and easily-contained burns are becoming a threat to residents.
Hundreds were forced to evacuate during the recent Decker Fire, spanning 8,959 acres at the height of its burn. Jerry Mallett, who lives two miles from the wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is among the group of evacuees living in what local forest rangers call the “red zone.”
“Fire’s gonna be part of our lifestyle,” Mallet said while standing inside his picturesque mountain-side home, set against the backdrop of five spectacular 14ers.
Though he is literally ‘playing with fire’ by choosing to stay where he is and refusing to clear the trees over his porch, Mallett is willing to take this risk because he loves the natural beauty and serenity of where he lives.
”It’s a choice and a gamble,” he said.
Although residents were made aware of the fire in a meeting the day before, the firefighters had told them that the situation was not a cause for alarm and that the fire would be a controlled burn, Mallet’s neighbor Mike Rosso said.
Locals understand that wildfires are unpredictable and a sudden change of wind can reverse a situation entirely, but they were still caught off guard by the turn of events.
“It’s a shock—at two o’clock in the morning they say ‘Your house is in danger,’” said Mallett.
Rosso also recalls how bewildered he was when Mallett knocked at his door at four in the morning and told him the news. Bleary-eyed and disoriented, the first thing he could think to say was “don’t let my cat out” before grabbing what he thought he would need for the next few days and heading downtown.
Federal officials are growing cognizant to the fact that the forests have gotten drier, though they are reluctant to link it to human-driven climate change.
By just looking at the “sheer numbers of acres burned,” you can tell that there’s been an uptick in wildfires, said Incident Meteorologist for the National Weather Service Makoto Moore.
Helitack crew supervisor for the US Forest Service Tom Kenny also pointed out how the routine fall burns were put on hold because the forest fuel was too dry this year.
The changing climate is often being tied to beetle kill, which has escalated due to increasing temperatures and drought weakening trees, said Rosso.
As more people move into areas vulnerable to wildfires, authorities and residents alike worry about how they can keep themselves and newcomers safe.
Kenny described how “a lot of people didn’t know what was going on” when being evacuated because most of the area’s wildfires remain unnoticed, being efficiently contained in wilderness areas while still small. He stressed the importance of residents mitigating fires in their neighborhoods.
“Homeowners have to be responsible for their property,” Kenny said.
To him, a perfect home is one that he and his team don’t have to worry about during a fire. “I’m putting my guys at risk to save that house,” he said.
But it’s not enough to just take care of your own house. Terry Krasko, a staff officer for the Forest Service and a burn boss, suggests that there needs to be community support and peer pressure among neighbors for mitigating fires to keep the entire neighborhood safe and prevent fires from spreading between houses.
“There are very basic things homeowners can do,” Krasko said. He advised people living in fire vulnerable areas to clean the dead leaves from their gutters, move woodpiles away from their house, and thin nearby trees and vegetation.
Even with the Decker Fire sparking a new awareness among residents regarding the seriousness of wildfires, Mallett is skeptical that this will last. Once there is another wet year that brings a lot of snow, he believes people will forget all about the issue.
“They will buck up and become complacent. It’s just human nature,” Mallett said.