The Waldo Canyon wildfire: A case study of the western urban-wilderness interface

Mari Titcombe Lee, Environmental Program, Colorado College

I feel the need to premise my essay with an acknowledgement - I am a novice when it comes to teaching sustainability in a formal educational setting. My background is in chemistry, a field with generally well-defined curricula for undergraduate education. The topic of "green chemistry" pops up a few times during a typical course, but is more often relegated to a separate, elective course in environmental chemistry. I now find myself in an interdisciplinary environmental science and policy program, and am only beginning to formulate my approach to teaching sustainability.

For me, the term sustainability evokes concepts of integrity and intergenerational equality in resource utilization. Definitions of sustainability are often human-centered and vary significantly between academic disciplines. But to be truly sustainable, the definition must recognize the intrinsic value of intact, natural ecosystems. To successfully teach sustainability I believe it must strike a personal chord with students. I plan to approach the concept of sustainability in the classroom by highlighting examples from the local community.

A powerful and personal example is the recent Waldo Canyon fire here in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs is the second largest urban center in the state, behind Denver. El Paso County, encompassing Colorado Springs, has experienced a growth rate of nearly 16% over the past decade (2010 Census data). This growth has pushed residential development ever higher into previously unpopulated, forested areas and significantly increased eastern-slope demand for water (which falls largely on the western slopes of the Colorado Rockies).

Initially the Waldo Canyon fire seemed to be progressing in a controlled manor. On the morning of Tuesday, June 26th the burn area covered 5000 acres and had been kept from burning any man-made structures. There were many in the college community that viewed the fire, if not overtly favorably, at least as natural and beneficial to the health of the forest. Then Tuesday afternoon a dry thunderstorm, a typical front-range summer weather event, rolled in from the west, gusting winds up to 65 miles per hour. Flames jumped over the western ridge and into residential neighborhoods. The city became enveloped in dense brown smoke, visibility was reduced to a few feet, and quarter-sized ash rained down. Traffic slowed to a stand-still as rush hour traffic and panic confounded residents attempts to get up to their homes, to grab loved ones, pets and important items. By Wednesday morning the fire had grown by over 10,000 acres, encompassing 18,000 acres, with 346 homes completely destroyed. The flames stopped a mere 6 miles of campus, providing a poignant visual reminder of our vulnerability to the forces of nature.

The Waldo Canyon fire is now the most destructive fire in the state's recorded history, surpassing the High Park fire, which also raged in the month of June, west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The ranking itself illustrates our bias towards (over) valuing human habitation and devaluing natural ecosystems – the Waldo Canyon fire burned 346 homes and 19,000 acres, whereas the High Park fire burned only 259 homes but nearly 90,000 acres of forest. As the town recovers from this tragedy the community, including Colorado College students, have a unique opportunity to reexamine forest management policies, development at the (sub)urban-wilderness interface, our valuation of the natural environment, and the stresses created by a changing regional climate.

Downloadable version of this essay