Written by Spencer Stepanek
Like so many other floods and landslide events, the I-70 landslide began with a fire. The Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon burned 32,631 acres of land into ash and soot. The fire consumed I-70 last August, closing the road for more than 10 days. This year, I-70 is closed again, this time due to extreme conditions caused by flooding. This same sequence of events occurred in Manitou Springs, near Colorado Springs. Fires lead to floods, which leads to catastrophic damage to ecosystems and human infrastructure alike.
When does this cycle end? In 2020, Colorado experienced its three largest fires in the state’s history. In the last twenty years, we’ve experienced the largest nine in history. Governor Polis promised a new approach to preventative fire measures, including new air units and other tactics. However, these measures miss the core issue underlying Colorado’s cycles of fire and flood.
Relentless polluters like Suncor and ExxonMobil have not been held accountable for the changing local climate, despite massive evidence of their emissions contributions, but there’s more; We know it’s us. Climate surveys from around the state are saying that these increased, fire prone summers are due to human emissions. Emissions, like Suncor’s 866,100 tons of toxic gasses released per year, are no help to the ever-changing Colorado climate (these emissions also contribute to our F grade air quality, says the ALA). All of these emissions contribute to the fire season–each year it becomes hotter and dryer.
The Fire/Flood Combo
Fires physically change landscapes. A scarred and lifeless area, in turn, makes the soil thin and loose. Floods and landslides are more common in these burn-scarred areas; any vegetation that would’ve held soil and water in its place is non-existent. There are no healthy trees or other greenery to keep dirt from shifting in its place or to trap water as it passes below the surface of the loose soil. Water runs, dislodges rocks and otherwise firm ground, and continues its destructive flow downstream. Even the soot from fires contributes to this effect, as it can be easily swept up in a current.
It will take up to 5 years after a fire for plant-growth to prevent more flooding. This can have drastic outcomes during the “wet” season. Nevii Beatty is a student studying restorative ecology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Nevii notes that a flood scenario depends drastically on an area’s plant life. Colorado’s Lodgepole pine ecosystem is at a particular risk to the fire/flood combo. While Lodgepole pine ecosystems rely on fires, floods have disastrous consequences for them. “In a fire dependent ecosystem, such as the Lodgepole pine dominant ecosystem in CO,” Nevii says, flooding “will likely have a more drastic impact relative to flooding in a shrub or grassland dominated ecosystem.”
The problem, however, is that fire causes Lodgepole pine cones to open and release seeds, while flooding may wash seeds away. Nevii explains “These trees grow at higher elevations with rolling hills. If flooding occurs following a fire in this ecosystem, a large number of seeds will be washed away to lower elevations where the ecosystem is not ideal for Lodgepole pines to grow.” After all the seeds are washed away, the hills have no trees! This leaves nothing but a perfect flood-prone environment.
What We Can Do
What can be done to mitigate disastrous effects of the hot season, including the cycle of fire and flood? What steps are taken after a fire to restore healthy soil? Unfortunately, there’s not much to do to predict fires. But flood-prone areas are usually previously burned and healing hillsides. So can we stop floods before they happen? Nevi thinks so, but infrastructure has other plans. “Regenerative vegetation/restoration is rarely prioritized over development for profit, even after natural disasters.” This fact is unfortunate, considering the timely nature of floods. They occur, they destroy everything, and they create new land for other things to grow. “Flood prone areas are normally regenerated, however they are [often] overtaken by invasive species… Guerilla gardening is always a great option.”
Nevii notes other ways we could help these scarred areas, before it’s too late for flooding–or the climate at large. “A[n]… obvious issue with the increase in these fires is we are losing large amounts of forest. We need these trees to provide habitat, carbon storage, and so much more. One thing we can do now is prepare to regenerate our forests simply through planting and caring for trees.”
She also notes that we should be collaborating with indigenous peoples on fire-related issues. “A necessary step in prevention is collaboration… As the original stewards of this land, Indigenous communities are more than deserving of a seat at the table when making policy choices regarding regenerative efforts or fire mitigation.” After all, we will only get through this together.
A Colorado Department of Transportation senior maintenance advisor called the I-70 flood a “500 year event”. Unfortunately if the cycle of fires and floods is not addressed, we will see many more dramatic flood-type events in the near future. We must prepare for more fires, more floods, and we must reduce our greenhouse emissions if we are to see this situation improve. Regenerative measures like planting more trees can also be used as a first response to fires, as to prevent floods before they occur. Whatever we do, we need to do it now.