Friday, June 29, 2012

Rockies Under Siege

Credit: Sam Green/Cortez Journal
 One year ago, Audubon Magazine posted an interesting article regarding a new concept:  Megafires -- forest fires in the western states that over the past 20 years have shattered records.  Nothing brings the point home like watching the sky turn orange on your weekend.

Temperatures for the western states have been rising 70% faster than the global average for the past decade.  According to Science magazine, fire season for the Rockies is 205 days, almost 3 months longer than the average 25 years ago, resulting in 6 times the acreage burned per year.

Fire season this year went off with a bang in mid May:  The Whitewater fire in the Gila Wilderness (still burning at 300,000 acres), and closer to home, the Little Sand fire in the San Juans (still burning at 24,000 acres).  The Gila Wilderness fire will be of special interest for research, since it is in an area with lots of ponderosa pines that have been managed with prescribed burns.  Fires can burn at different intensities, and certain habitats are much better adapted to fires than others.  This month the Front Range has been having mega fires near cities that captured national attention.
Rock glacier moraine, Kismet, and Sneffels

This past weekend, we escaped the unseasonably hot temperatures by going for a hike in the mountains.  We went to Blaine Basin on the north face of Mount Sneffels.    It's a nice hike with a few waterfalls and cascades, with the basin having great views of the north face of Sneffels, Whitehouse, and Circque Mountain. There were lots of columbine, but most of the alpine wildflowers seemed to be dormant, waiting for rain to make up for the very low amount of snowpack this year.  Seeing the mountain streams burst out from the rock glaciers is profound: the start of a stream that joins a river and heads to the sea.
Primula parryi (Parry's Primrose)

Around lunchtime, we could smell smoke on the gusting south winds.  Since I had been smelling smoke from the Little Sand fire at Mesa Verde for the past 2 weeks, I assumed it was from that fire picking up in activity.  In another 2 hours, the sky turned a strange umber with the sun looking rusty orange.  Mountains in the far distance faded out from view, and a marmot looked at me with a concerned expression.  A huge flat rock in the stream reflected back the orange glow from the sun as if the water was catching fire.  Hiking up the saddle between the jagged peaks into the sickly setting sun, breathing smoke and feeling the altitude, made me imagine this to be the lair of dragons!

Here be Smaug the Dragon?
The following day, after a soak in the hot springs at getting my caffine fix at Mouse's Chocolate, we did a few caches near the miner's shrine in Silverton and finally headed home.  Driving west from Durango, I noticed a towering smoke plume in the distance.  I was really concerned that it was Mesa Verde going up in flames.  When we drove further west towards the La Platas, we realized that Menefee Mountain was all on fire.  Billowing smoke plumes, huge flames, and lots of cars going everywhere like an ants nest had been stirred.  Fortunately this past week we had our first glimpse of monsoon rains.  It didn't rain much, but the higher humidity and slightly cooler temperatures really helped dampen the energy of the fire.  A smaller fire started on the ridge due south from our house in Cortez, so a helicopter was diverted to put it out the following morning.
Springing from the weight of the mountains
Like the heart of the earth would burst

Maybe next season I'll look for a job in Alaska?

I found a fun new way to spend Sunday evenings: virtual Star Parties at CosmoQuest!  I always wanted a huge telescope with a smooth clock drive and a clue as to what to point it at.  Star Parties were always great because I could rely on others to have quality gear, point it at something cool, and most importantly, be able to explain what the heck I was staring at.  The virtual star party is the next best thing, since from the comfort of my chair we can watch many telescopes and learn about the stars from professional astronomers.  Very cool!  Now they just need to provide a remote app that lets me take control of a telescope.  :-)

No comments: