No easy solutions for using planes to fight fires

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Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 description of the five stages of grieving still resonates. Once again, we’ve seen our friends and neighbors stricken by sudden tragedy, and forced to negotiate all five stages in a few days. Imagine yourself in their place — could this be you?

Denial. It can’t be happening again! Last year’s fire was a once-in-a-lifetime event, wasn’t it?

Anger. Why here? And why couldn’t they stop it before it got so big? And why do we have to go through this again? And why do I have to evacuate — I can’t even see the fire!

Bargaining. Lord, if you’ll save my house and those of my friends and neighbors, I will devote my life to praise and good works. Actually, Lord, I don’t care about my house — it’s just stuff. Protect my neighbors, and my dog, and my horse — they’re living things and I’m so worried about them.

Depression. I don’t know about anything. I feel paralyzed. I thank Sheriff Terry Maketa, the firefighters, and the hundreds and hundreds of good people who are helping. I can’t do anything. I’m glad to have a place to stay, but they still don’t know if my house is gone. Think my horse is all right — but my dog? I feel like crying all the time, but I can’t be weak. There are thousands who have lost everything.

Acceptance. My dog is OK! She’s at the Humane Society, and my friend Angie can board my horse for as long as I want. The house is gone, but so is the entire neighborhood. I feel sort of calm and numb, but I can get on with my life, find a new place to live. I don’t know what my life will be, but that’s OK. I’m moving on.

That’s a composite account, gleaned from a dozen sources. It’s impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the fire’s victims, the selfless courage of those who have fought it, and the generous response of our community.

But now it’s time for a difficult community discussion, one too important to leave to the experts.

Just as those diagnosed with metastasized pancreatic cancer must eventually deal with their imminent demise, those of us who live in the wildlands-urban interface must live with fire risk.

And here’s the grim reality: It’s not clear that there’s any effective way to mitigate that risk.

Consider the conditions that preceded the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Years of drought and near-drought conditions, combined with higher than normal ambient temperatures, have substantially lowered forest moisture content in native forests along the Front Range. Climate scientists believe that this is the new normal. As we’ve seen, our forests that once were cool and verdant are now green tinderboxes ready to explode.

Start with cloudless skies, temperatures in the 90s and powerful winds. Add a source of ignition, and you may have only minutes until the fire is racing through the treetops, a self-reinforcing firestorm that cannot be controlled without a massive firefighting effort aided by a change in the weather.

So how can we protect the tens of thousands of area residents who live in and adjacent to the forests?

Some suggest that the state should have its very own fleet of aerial tankers, ready to take off at a minute’s notice and deal with fires before they become threatening.

That’s a fine idea, except that it might not work in the event of a truly dangerous fire. Powerful winds would either ground the planes or make their retardant drops too distant to be effective — and besides, who’s going to pay for the planes? And speaking of pay, will residents of the region agree to another public safety tax increase to fund a really muscular wildfire suppression unit?

We could easily commit to spending tens of millions annually on preventive measures, and still be overwhelmed by another massive fire.

Living near the forest, like driving a car, owning a gun or sailing on the open ocean carries certain risks. If your home is in the WUI, you have to accept inherent tradeoffs. You get wildlife, pine-scented air, a tranquil environment and cool summer evenings. In return, you’d better be ready to flee with an hour’s notice, and say goodbye to a lifetime’s accumulation of treasures.

Mitigation? That’s up to you. You can move your most precious possessions to a storage unit during the summer, shrug your shoulders and accept the risk, or leave the forest.

But don’t expect the government to solve your problem.