Risking it all for a view: Colorado forest dwellers face climate-driven intensification of wildfires

By Leah Thayer 

SALIDA — Perched atop a small bluff, with a perfect view of the Sawatch Range, lies a house at the end of Ridge Road. The beautiful cottage belongs to Jerry Mallett, founder of the nonprofit Colorado Headwaters, and 20-yearlong resident of Salida, Colorado. Just over a month ago, on October 2nd, Mallett’s wilderness lifestyle was shaken to its core by the flames of a wildfire coming within a mile of his home.

“It looked like a volcano, the whole mountain was on fire,” said Mallett. Methodist Mountain was ablaze that morning, when he was jolted awake at 2 A.M by firefighters urging him and his wife to evacuate their home.

The Decker Fire, which tore through 8,959 acres of forests, was started by a lightning strike, a natural cause for many wildfires. It is unclear if this occurrence was impacted directly by climate change. The forest burned by the fire was largely full of standing dead beetle kill spruce, which burns easily and quickly. Experts attribute this fact to why the Decker Fire was likely the worst seen in Salida in over 100 years. The prolific spreading of mountain pine needles that cause such damage to trees can be linked to impacts of climate change and warmer temperatures.

Mallett and his neighbors see fire mitigation as your everyday typical household chore. Because they are living in ‘red zone’, meaning the firefighters may not fight a fire in the area, they take measures into their own hands. They cut down most of the trees on their properties, keep wood away from the house, and adhere to strict fire-friendly landscaping, just to name a few. “They [the Forest Service] wanted to let it burn,” says Mallett, “we live with that every day.”

“Were trying to manage our forests, but we also need to educate people,” says Tom Kinney, Helitack crew leader for the Decker Fire. It may be Kinney’s job to protect the lives of people from wildfires, but he also sees the immense importance in educating people on the very real risks of living in areas where wildfires are common, so they are prepared and can do their best to mitigate that risk.

Kinney has worked for the US Forest Service for 26 years and says that during that time, fires have become less and less predictable. Kinney was used to his busiest season being in the summer, from about May to September. Now, the fire season is extended as late as November or December, and in recent years Kinney has been kept away from family over the holidays because of fires still raging long into the season.

Along with Kinney, the Mallett’s and all their neighbors are constantly adjusting their lifestyle to live with the threat of wildfires at their door.

“Fires are going to be a part of our lifestyle, the climate is getting warmer,” says Mallett. People like Mallett, who find the simple pleasures of mountain life, warrant the ‘rolling of the dice’ when it comes to wildfires. It’s an acceptance of risk that comes with building a home in such close proximity to a wilderness area.

Climate change is affecting Mallett and his wife in a very real way. In addition to the short term effects and dangers of wildfires, Mallett is living with the fear of long term effects like erosion, flash flooding, uncertain wildlife patterns, and major drops in the local tourism economy.

Why then do people like Mallett insist on building nice homes in wilderness red zones? Well for him, the answer is remarkably simple.

“My wife wanted a view,” says Mallett.

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