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I first heard about Colorado’s Spring Fire on July 1, when I was driving back from a camping trip. My mom texted me from her home in Florida: “How close are these fires?” I pulled over to a rest stop, called up the federal disaster website Inciweb, and sent her back a screenshot of the wildfire’s perimeter. It seemed far away from my house on the Huerfano County line, like it would have to cross impossible acres to even come close. “Looks like we’re good,” I wrote back.
The Spring Fire is the third largest in the state’s history. By the time I learned about it, the fire already had burned through more than 40,000 acres. A plume of smoke unfurled into a constantly replenished mushroom cloud. It was 0 percent “contained,” meaning that no human-made or natural barrier was stopping the fire’s edge from expanding. Costilla and Huerfano counties had evacuated around 2,000 households by July 2.
The fire had, by then, grown to more than 56,000 acres, just 5 percent contained.
I arrived at my cabin on the 3rd, hose in hand, knowing I couldn’t really help the house but not knowing what else to do. The Spring Fire had bloomed to nearly 80,000 acres. The Transportation Department closed the highway right at the turnoff to my place. Big-bellied planes full of retardant crossed the sky overhead, their flight path traversing part of the bullishly named Wet Valley.
That night, the sunset, reflecting off the smoke particles, was spectacular. The mountains all looked like they were on fire—even the ones that weren’t.
Forty miles south, from their base in the Huerfano county seat of Walsenburg, a group called Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team had taken charge of taming and containing the northern section of the blaze; another team, Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team Black, was assigned to deal with the southern portion. To direct the emergency response personnel—nearly 1,800 people worked the fire at its peak—the group needed a lot of data, a tightly wound plan, and a weirdly Office Space organizational structure.
Fire behavior analyst Shelly Crook, Blue Team, is key to that endeavor. She’s in charge of figuring out what the northern portion of the fire is doing and what it will do. Every morning during the Spring Fire, she has woken up in the bed she keeps in the back of her car. By 5 am, she shows up at the ad hoc incident command post—at John Mall High School—to see if an infrared plane went out overnight. “I take stock of that data, and see where the fire moved from the previous perimeter, to see how much it has grown,” she says.
This is Crook’s fourth fire this year, and when we spoke, it was her 60th day in the field. (She is “retired.”) “When a fire starts, you kind of drop everything,” she says. And so did the other Western-based members of her team, who converged quickly on the Spring Fire after the call went out from the Geographic Area Coordination Center, which helps mobilize emergency resources.
At their temporary command post in Walsenburg, they have all the divisions a business might, including finance types, HR reps, and porta-potty procurers. Every day, a planning team writes out a 30-page packet of information about everything a firefighter might need, from which frequencies to use for communications to what the weather will be like.
For that latter part, there’s a dedicated meteorologist. He sits next to Crook as part of a unit that prints more than 150 maps every day—county roads and structures, topography from the US Geological Survey, GPS locations from the ground. After Crook checks on the infrared flight, she gets information from her officemate about the relative humidity; she’s hoping that it increased significantly overnight. “If it’s good, the fire is not going to be active as early,” she adds. They dig into data from weather stations—permanent ones and seven RAWS, remote automated weather systems, specially installed at critical Spring Fire locations—informing a forecast Crook will present during morning meetings.
That’s just the beginning of Crook’s day, which she dedicates to predicting the north fire’s next moves, as best she can.