The Way I See Wildfire

By Stanley Edwin, SOARS Protégé​​

View of wildfire smoke from a road in Boulder, CO
Photo taken of the wildfire near Boulder, Colorado by SOARS Protege Annareli Morales

I could still see some of the smoke in the hills above Boulder when I returned from a science workshop in New Mexico. This told me how close the fire came to Boulder.

As a former forest firefighter in Alaska, I have a little more experience with fires than most college students, so when I first heard about the fire encroaching on Boulder, I decided to reassure my SOARS friends that everything would be fine.

Fire, like living things, requires a source of food or fuel  - namely wood, the drier the better. Air, or oxygen within the air, lets the fire breathe. Fire also needs a way to start combusting.

It has been very hot in Colorado. For many people this means pool time, soaking in the sun, fun stuff. Meanwhile, the ground has been evaporating what little water it had into the air. The trees started to get drier, and the grass as well. The humidity got lower. With no rains all week, this was a good time for fires.

We all know lightning can start fires, and so can people, but the fire behind Boulder was started by lightning. It started in the hills behind Boulder where thick brush along the slopes had dried, making for many good burning places.

As a young firefighter, I was taught that fires tend to  burn  on south-facing slopes than on north-facing ones. With winds blowing, fires can move very fast. Sometimes the wind blows the flames from one tree to the next, known as rolling, however most often sparks get blown by the wind a distance in front of the main blaze, and the fire moves that way by starting little fires ahead of itself.

As an old firefighter, after having all kinds of experiences with fire, I had learned what fire will do and how not to be afraid. However those who do not know, or don't fight fires everyday get a little scared. The more you understand a fire, the less scared you will be.

When firefighters fight fires, there are a whole lot of ways to do it. Big airplanes and helicopters drop water or the red stuff called fire retardant on the fires. The red retardant is both for fighting the fires and it is food for the trees. It has water and fertilizer in it. Then there are other ways of fighting a fire as well. One is to remove the fuel that the fire consumes, the trees and grass. This is called making a fire break, or fire line. Roads are a good fire line, but when it’s windy, sparks can get across.

The safer place in a big fire is within a town with lots of roads, main highways, where the road can stop the fire and fire trucks can get around quickly. The worst place to be is in the hills or mountains because fire burns very fast uphill. So while the fire was burning near Boulder, the safest place was down in town where it’s flat with lots of roads. However when a town has lots of trees around homes, the homes are in greater danger. In Alaska most homeowners are encouraged to cut the tree line back from their homes. Having a lot of trees around a home makes it better for shade, look good, etc., but placing them away from the home would help. I did mention towns are safest, but the areas within these towns with the least amount of trees and the most spread out homes are best.

We should all be glad that it rained, for that put the water back into the ground, and slowed the fire till it has no more dry stuff to burn. While I was away I informed my younger friends not to over worry, the authorities will let you know when to go and where. I hope I helped explain a little about fires, there is a lot more to it, but this will help ease the worry a little.

Stanley Edwin
Stanley Edwin is from the Interior of Alaska, Fort Yukon and Chalkyitsik. He is an undergraduate student attending the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in Applied Physics, with emphases in Space Weather. Find out more about Stanley Edwin's research and the SOARS Program.