CU author discusses changing wildfire environment
September 23, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It was apparent Wednesday night at Bud Werner Memorial Library that wildfires are on the minds of Routt County residents.
University of Colorado faculty member Michael Kodas had a captive audience as he discussed his new book “Megafire, The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.”
Kodas first tasted fire as a young journalist in Connecticut when he climbed over fences to reach a dozen people trying to put out a grass fire. Before he was able to take the first picture, he was tackled by a guard.
Kodas realized he had accidentally trespassed onto prison grounds. The guard then realized what Kodas was doing there.
The guard lifted Kodas up, and he was able to get the shot of one of the prison wildfire crew members running as he was about to get burned over.
“That really sparked an interest in me on this natural phenomenon,” Kodas said.
Kodas later did a stint on a wildfire crew before beginning work on his book in 2011.
The journey took him to fires throughout the world as he learned how culture, economics and politics played a role in wildfires.
The excitement of chasing fires was countered by the men and women who had lost their lives fighting them.
In Israel, he reported on the Mount Carmel Fire that killed 44 people.
In Australia, he went to the Black Saturday fires that had the equivalent power of 1,500 nuclear bombs.
Fires in Indonesia sparked by agricultural burns left decaying material burning for months underground.
Stateside, he was at the Yarnell Fire within hours of 19 firefighters being killed. It was the largest loss of firefighters since 9/11.
“That’s where the book really changes pretty radically,” Kodas said.
Kodas explained that in 2015, more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget went toward fighting fires and 10 million acres burned compared to the 1970s when about 3 million acres burned each year.
The increase in fires was the result of decades worth of a fire management policy that at one point dictated that any new fire had to be put out by 10 a.m. the next day.
“Without any recognition that our forests need fire as much as they need rain, we changed the structure of the forests and made them much more prone to this," Kodas said while showing a picture of fire overtaking the crowns of trees.
Kodas witnessed the extreme behavior of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire that crossed into subdivisions to create an urban fire storm.
There, he witnessed houses that were completely destroyed yet still surrounded by green grass and flowers.
“It didn’t even waste its time on the vegetation by the house,” Kodas said.
His years of reporting and research has led him to some conclusions.
“There are definitely going to be times when we need to fight wildfires, but maybe a lot of the times we need to think less about fighting wildfires and more about how we’re going to live with wildfires,” Kodas said. “We’re going to learn how to live with fire one way or another.”
Routt County residents have been contending with that this summer as smoke filled the air and ash fell from the sky.
Curtis Rogers, a local Friends of Wilderness volunteer who attended the event, said that the smoke raised his awareness.
“The more close calls you get, the more likely you are to have something serious happen,” Rogers said.
A couple from Oregon who attended the event said they were in Steamboat to escape the smoke out west.
Forest Service District Ranger Chad Stewart said Kodas did a great presentation that addressed a lot of the issues the Forest Service deals with daily.
“The way we fight fire as well as utilize fire has changed significantly in the last decade,” Stewart said. “There is no doubt he has done the research, and I found the historical perspective combined with today's challenges to be well delivered.”