Amidst Burning Mountains

By Andre Perkins, SOARS Protégé​​

View of wildfire smoke from the road
Smoke from the High Park Fire near Fort Collins, CO on June 9, 2012.

A curious cloud is visible in the rearview mirror. It's much lower than any of the other cumulus puffs at the top of daytime thermals. Why is it so low? Is it coming from the mountains?

I had never seen the effects of a wildfire in person before June 9th, 2012 when the High Park ignited to the west of Fort Collins, CO. Looking at the curious cloud from the car, one of my colleagues suggested that it was probably a fire. It captured my attention at every vantage point we had.

I am from Wisconsin. The northern half of Wisconsin is peppered with lakes surrounded by summer cabins, there are the Great Lakes to the north and east, and two large lakes surround even my college home of Madison. What I'm trying to say is that there is a lot of water there! The air in the summer can get to tropical moisture levels (even as I am writing Madison is under an excessive heat warning with 70°F dewpoints and 100°F temperatures) so an entire city aflame has never been a primary concern of mine. Seeing temperatures soar to +100°F while dewpoints remain below freezing is definitely not something I'm accustomed to.

Really? A relative humidity of 4%?

I'd be afraid to even rustle sticks together for fear of them bursting into flames when it gets this hot and dry. Well, the fact of the matter is that nature has no feelings; it cares not for the worries of humankind; it only abides by a set of physical constraints. That means sometimes nature will rustle things, these rustles cause sparks, and then the mountains burn.

A few weeks after the High Park fire, Colorado is back to dangerous fire conditions with the same type of heat seen earlier in June. Around mid-day on June 26th thunderstorms were over the mountains in the Boulder area. I could see streaks of rain leaving the cloud base. But only the largest drops would reach the ground - just a “sprinkle”. The updrafts were rearranging electrical charges in the storm and one thing that did reach the ground were electrons travelling through channels in the air.

Lightning. This isn't good.

Wildfire smoke as viewed from a park in Boulder, CO
Smoke from the Flagstaff fire near Boulder, CO

Not more than a few hours later, a plume of smoke is billowing from the mountains over Boulder, and by the time of my ride home, flames were cresting over the ridge. I was thinking that there was a distinct possibility that the entire eastern side of the mountains above Boulder – the Flatirons would be ablaze. Would there be the surreal experience of the hellish orange glow dispersed by the smoky haze with embers lazily drifting through the view? It would have been quite an experience, but the magnitude of loss in that type situation is never worth the firsthand account. Thankfully, through the hard work of the fire fighting crews and a stroke of luck with sustained rains on the mountain, the fire was contained quickly on the eastern flank, outside of town.

The smoke still remains here. Some days are worse than others, and the asthma doesn't help. Recently, somebody I was talking with mentioned how the haze made this area seem like a totally different place, and I have to agree. It feels a bit alien not being able to easily discern the mountains. The obscuring smoke constantly reminds us here in Boulder of how close we were to the chaos, and that it still rages in other areas across the west.

My name is Andre Perkins, and as I stated before this was my first experience with any sort of large fire in the wild. It was unnerving at times, but the atmospheric scientist side of me also was filled with questions about the fires and how they interact with the weather and the mountains. Why did some days have huge pyrocumulus clouds resembling thunderstorms while others didn't? How can a fire influence the weather in the region? Can it form a surface low-pressure area and feed itself with the convergence of air into the region? How does a mountain breeze during the day, or a valley breeze at night affect how the fire behaves?

Mountain terrain is a very complex region to think about in terms of the weather, and when you add flames into the mix I imagine the complexity of the situation increases exponentially. I look forward to hopefully reading more about possible studies from this summer examining questions like these, or finding pieces that have already been written. Feel free to contact my e-mail if you have some answers for me or simply would like to discuss some of the questions. Thanks for reading.

Andre Perkins
Andre Perkins is a SOARS Protégé and is working on his B.S. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin. Find out more about Andre Perkins’s research and the SOARS Program.