May 27, 2022
 | 3:42 pm

Red line in the sand

Experts talk risks, responsibilities as dangerous fire season heats up

Firefighters battle a 2.5 -acre blaze near the Colorado State University Pueblo campus on April 12. (Courtesy photo/Austin Belore/The Today)
Firefighters battle a 2.5 -acre blaze near the Colorado State University Pueblo campus on April 12. (Courtesy photo/Austin Belore/The Today)
SPECIAL TO THE PUEBLO STAR JOURNAL
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Gunnison “Gunny” Pagnotta flipped open his phone and scrolled through the photo library. It took a moment, but he found the archived video for which he was looking.

With towering pines set before a hazy mountain background, the clip could have been of most any alpine forest. It would be easily described as idyllic, were it not for the flames leaping skyward amongst the trees.

Pagnotta neither shot the short-but-devastating clip nor tangoed with the blaze it depicted — the career educator and one-time hot shot firefighter hung up his protective gear nearly two decades earlier — but he held on to it as a reminder of a horrific event that razed a place close to his heart. Between June 27 and Sept. 10, 2018, the Spring Creek Fire rampaged across the forested foothills near La Veta Pass in the San Luis Valley and cut down a subdivision Pagnotta, now the communications coordinator for GOAL High School and a licensed real estate agent, helped build just a few years before.

Pagnotta, a jovial man who is quick to grin and rarely caught without a pun or self-described “dad joke,” was the principal at John Mall High School in Walsenburg in the years leading up to the blaze. During his summers, he helped sell lots and homes in the Paradise Acres neighborhood in La Veta.

Current real estate listings show multi-acre plots available with images of babbling brooks, lush mountain pastures and Aspen trees blackened by the blaze.

“It went from Paradise Acres to paradise lost just like that,” Pagnotta said with a snap of his fingers. “Paradise Acres will heal and be more beautiful than ever before.

“It’s the natural cycle, but we humans put the unnatural in it, and unfortunately it comes at the cost of human life.”

On Dec. 30, 2021, a combination of long-term drought and hurricane-force gales set the stage for what would quickly become the most destructive fire in Colorado history and meant a very unhappy New Year for hundreds of residents of Boulder, Louisville and Superior. While 2022 hadn’t yet begun, its fire season burst out of the gate with the devastation of the Marshall Fire.

Throughout the Western U.S., dry grasslands and trees, near-zero humidity and widespread drought have created a playbook for a fire season that has already proven to be, inarguably, wild. Around 6 p.m. April 12, a half-dozen wildfires broke out in rapid succession across the region, keeping crews busy from La Junta to Beulah. One, which burned about 2½ acres between U.S. 47 and Alamosa Drive just southeast of and adjacent to the Colorado State University Pueblo campus, put to rest the former truth that wildfires should only be expected at the urban-rural interface.

Pueblo Fire Capt. Bryce Boyer told student journalists at the CSU Pueblo newspaper The Today that conditions were right that night for a repeat of Boulder’s devastating blaze.

“With the wind speeds that were present … the fact that the predicted winds were in the 80 to 100 (mile per hour) ranges, it very much pointed us to what happened in … the Marshall Fire,” he said. “It’s very important we don’t repeat this.”

“The month of April we had a red flag warning going, it seemed like, most every day,” said Eric Petersen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. “In the forest, the trees and stuff have dried out, so those larger fuels … are receptive to fire right now.

“Those factors are what’s been driving the fire activity in the last several weeks. The combination of wind, relatively low humidity like we’ve had and with the ongoing drought and fuels – there’s a lot of grass out there that’s available to burn. It’s a perfect storm.”

A perfect storm, but as Pueblo Fire Chief and Deputy Mayor Barbara Huber said, not one that is inevitable.
“Awareness does so much for everybody,” she said in a May 18 interview. “Your own awareness of what your hazards are. If everybody’s aware, we can all be safer and feel less anxious.”

Waving red flags

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows that 22 of April’s 30 days met the qualifications for red flag warnings in Pueblo County. That alert is sounded when area land management agencies and the weather service agree that the conditions are ripe for a burning problem.

“The land management agencies look at the fuels and the dryness of the grass and the dryness of the forest and give us a yes-no,” Petersen said. “Is it dry enough to support a fire or is it moist enough not to? “We look at the weather patterns. We look at wind speed and we’re looking at sustained winds or frequent gusts above 25 mph, and we’re looking at humidity. We want to see humidity of less than 15%.”
So when the county spent 70% of a month meeting the qualifications, “it’s definitely more than we’ve issued in a long time,” Petersen said.

Additionally, he said, we are deep in the throes of an oceanic weather pattern known as La Niña. The late-May winter storm that swept the region notwithstanding, Petersen said forecast models don’t suggest that pattern should change anytime soon.

“If you don’t think Waldo Canyon could happen in Pueblo, Colorado, you’re wrong.”

Woody Percival, Pueblo Fire PIO

“One of the characteristics is there is a wet-dry band across the state,” he said.

That means while Southern Colorado bakes under dry, oven-like conditions, the northern half of the state isn’t doing too badly.

“We’ve had a lot of dry weather over the past year and the pattern we’re in kind of tends to favor participation in the northern half of the state and the northern Rockies,” Petersen said. “We’re right on the edge of that storm track, so instead of rainfall we get the winds.”

On April 13, Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor put the county under Stage 1 fire restrictions. In addition to being its top cop, Taylor is also the county fire warden and he made the decision to control outdoor burning with the support and input of area fire chiefs, according to a statement.

“This is not a decision that is taken lightly but one that is done with consideration for the safety and well-being of our citizens and our first responders,” Taylor said in a statement. “Although vegetation is starting to turn green, a lack of moisture has made for very dry conditions and with the number of fires that have recently occurred in and around Pueblo County, this has become a real safety concern.”

The restriction, which has also been implemented with in Pueblo city limits, prohibits:

  • Open burning, except for fires and campfires within constricted fire grates located on developed camp or picnic grounds. Charcoal grills and wood-burning stoves at private residences are also OK, as long as areas are cleared of flammable materials.
  • The unpermitted sale or use of fireworks.
  • Smoking outdoors, except inside a vehicle or if standing in an area with at least 3 feet diameter, cleared of all flammable materials.

Agricultural burning may be approved on a case-by-case basis and monitored by local fire jurisdiction.

Fire season is here: Firefighters battle a 2.5 -acre blaze near the Colorado State University Pueblo campus on April 12. {Courtesy photo/Austin Belore/The Today)
Firefighters battle a 2.5 -acre blaze near the Colorado State University Pueblo campus on April 12. (Courtesy photo/Austin Belore/The Today)

Halfway through May, and with minimal expectation that the conditions would change, Huber said she was considering imposing Stage 2 restrictions, which impact commercial industry as well as residential properties. As Pueblo County Fire Public Information Officer Woody Percival told members of the Southern Colorado Press Club May 10, violating that order can come with hefty penalties. Percival and Huber joined Police Chief Chris Noeller as part of an update on emergency response in the city.

Colorado state law says anyone who knowingly or recklessly starts or maintains a fire, or causes an explosion, and who by so doing places either a person or a building in harm’s way, could be charged with arson. At the low end, if the fire is relatively minor and does little damage (less than $300 worth), it’s a petty offense. At the high end, fourth-degree arson is a class 2 felony that causes property-only damages in the $1 million-plus range. For some perspective, a class 2 felony is punishable by eight to 24 years in prison and/or fines of $5,000 to $1 million. Convictions also can’t be sealed from the defendant’s criminal record. The charges and fines only increase from there.

Independence Day is historically the busiest time of the year for the Pueblo Fire Department, Huber said, and in an area where fireworks are synonymous with celebration, the department is already preparing.
“It’s too bad the conditions aren’t looking good for fireworks this year, but there are other ways to celebrate,” she said.

“If you don’t think Waldo Canyon could happen in Pueblo, Colorado, you’re wrong,” Percival said during the meeting. “It’s not just the folks along the river or on the edges of our community” who are at risk.

View from the fire line

Angela Sokolowski is a strong woman with an authoritative voice and a salty vocabulary. She’s earned all three, having spent 20 years managing, and occasionally battling, wildfires both intentional and accidental.

A graduate of Iowa State University with a bachelor of science degree in animal ecology, Sokolowski worked for 13 years as a biological science technician with the National Park Service before transitioning last month to a position as invasive species coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
While today she battles invasive water populations, throughout her career with the park service she fought flames throughout the Show-Me State and occasionally beyond. Much of her experience came from prescribed burns — an intentional fire set to a predetermined area to help with land management, improve soil and habitat quality and control invasive growth.

“Your lives are more important than your home. I know nobody wants to hear that, but Mother Nature is definitely in charge these days, and she likes 50-plus mph winds.”

Barb Huber, Pueblo Fire Chief

But during the summers, she said, “it was all-hands-on-deck.

“When (the Western U.S.) is burning, they call in all their resources so anyone who wants to can go fight fires.”

Sokolowski started out her firefighting career on 20-person hand crews – the iconic teams pictured hiking right up to the fire line while laden with a heavy backpack and hefting pickaxes, shovels and chainsaws. She worked her way up to engine boss, adding the responsibility of bringing in critical supplies.

It’s all hard work.

“When you’re on the fire line, it’s long days,” Sokolowski said. “You get up early, you’re on the clock by 6 (a.m.) and you take some breaks and you take lunch, and you’re back in camp, if you get to come back to camp, 12 to 14 hours later and you hurry up and eat. Maybe you get a shower, and you’re back up the next day and doing it again.”

She has fought wildland fires in which she went 14 days without the luxury of a shower or laundry; where she was dropped off with a personal camp, shovel and some rations and picked up a few days later.

“It just depends on the fire. It depends on where, if it’s really early in the game, if it’s late in the game. They build into little cities if it’s a big fire,” she said.

That sounds intense, Sokolowski agreed, but she said much as in the military, wildland firefighters are well trained and rely on their skill sets to get the job done.

“I know it’s a lot scarier for you guys looking at us doing it than for us doing it,” she said.

So why do it? What spurs any first responder to put health and safety at risk to protect another’s — most likely a complete stranger’s — property?

“We love what we do,” Huber said. “It’s definitely rewarding for the individual to do it.”

Everyone’s responsibility

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that oversees the weather service, compiles a monthly report on American climate. According to the survey posted May 9, some 1.1 million acres of American soil have burned since Jan. 1 — a 160% increase from the average for this time of year. As a point of reference, one acre is 43,560 square feet; meaning some 47.916 billion feet of U.S. land have caught fire this year alone. That equals some 907,386 square miles — a swath nearly nine times the size of Colorado.

But that’s not to say a rampaging fire is inevitable. Sokolowski points to prescribed burns by trained professionals as a way to mitigate the risk, establish fire break lines and improve habitats, but she also acknowledges that conditions for such actions aren’t culturally or environmentally great right now.

“With climate change and stuff there’s more and more sensitivity to smoke, but it’s kind of a catch-22. If we could do more prescribed fires, there would be fewer mega-wildfires and much less smoke in the air,” she said. “If they’re in drought, we probably don’t have conditions where they could do that safely.”

And if your immediate reaction is that to light a fire to fight fire seems, well, dumb, she gets that, too. She said it’s important to take steps to keep the blaze away from your home.

“It’s the natural cycle, but we humans put the unnatural in it, and unfortunately it comes at the cost of human life.”

Gunnison ‘Gunny’ Pagnotta

“Firewise landscaping is something people get used to, but they have to see it,” Sokolowski said. “They have to see that it works.”

The National Fire Protection Association suggests landscaping your home by zones that essentially use plants, grass and driveways to provide areas of protection against fire spread. It breaks down like this:
Zone 1 (within 30 feet of the house): A well-irrigated area that encapsulates a home and all of its attachments. Keep plants carefully spaced, low-growing, well-watered and free of flammables like resins, oils and waxes. Prune trees, which can serve as ladders for flames, to no more than 10 feet from the ground and create a “fire-free” area within 5 feet where nonflammable landscaping materials are the name of the game. Keep firewood and propane tanks out of this area.

Zone 2 (30 to 100 feet from the house): Keep plants in these areas low-growing, pruned to no more than 10 feet tall; well-irrigated and less flammable by leaving 30 feet between clusters of two to three trees, or 20 feet between individual trees. Consider using fuel breaks like driveways, gravel walkways and lawns; try a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees.

Zone 3 (100 to 200 feet from the house): Keep plants in this area from taking over. It’s important to keep plants thinned so smaller trees don’t grow between the taller ones and heavy woody debris doesn’t build up.

Additionally, Percival and Huber said during the May 10 meeting, it’s important to make sure flammable trees aren’t touching the house and to keep gutters clean of leaves, pine needles and other debris that can act as a torch.

“A lot of time what happens is fires creep along the grasses that are burning and if a taller or combustible plant is in the way, that catches fire,” Huber told the press club. “We call fuels that go up in height ‘ladder fuels.’ ”

And if the worst-case happens, be ready to just drop and go, she said.

“Your lives are more important than your home,” the fire chief said. “I know nobody wants to hear that, but Mother Nature is definitely in charge these days and she likes 50-plus mph winds.”

RELATED: How to make a fire season safety plan

Regan Foster
Regan Foster is a former professor of journalism at Colorado State University Pueblo and faculty adviser to the student-run newspaper The Today; a founding member of the Pueblo Star Journal; an 18-year veteran of print and broadcast news; and a former member of the Southern Colorado Press Club board of directors.
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