Colorado Conflagration

Colorado’s watersheds at risk of contamination after wildfires.

On June 1st, 2018, the massive “416 Fire” started in forests just north of Durango, Colorado. So far, no homes have burned down and no firefighters have been injured. However, the longer-term impacts of the fire could generate indirect effects that may pose a threat to the citizens of Colorado. According to a study released by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recent western forest fires have dispersed hazardous sediments and organic materials into streams, lakes, and other waterways. The study indicates that the damage may even affect municipal water supplies in the future. The 416 Fire has already contaminated nearby streams and now endangers the state’s water reservoirs. The threatened reservoirs provide clean water for more than 1.4 million citizens in the Denver area, so the effects of the fire are potentially catastrophic. In response, the city of Denver and its partners have allocated $66 million for reforestation and tree thinning near vital watersheds in hopes of mitigating the fire’s impact. Tree thinning and other forms of mitigation have worked in the past, most noticeably, during the 2002 Hayman fire.

“[S]ource waters impacted by wildfires can be difficult to treat, resulting in additional costs in the form of more chemical coagulants and the potential need for capital improvements,”- Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an associate professor at CU’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and the lead author of the study.

The current status of the fire is still being determined because different sources provide different information. There is some confusion as to the definitive data from the fire. Some sources indicate that the fire is 37% contained and spans around 50,000 acres of land. Other sources suggest that the fire is 15% contained and has burned only 26,500 acres.

These data discrepancies create public risk. Ambiguous or incorrect data can hinder the ability of emergency managers and first responders to properly address crises. Precise data and information that helps communities stay safe and support each other are vital to community resilience. Furthermore, the public deserves a detailed depiction of the disaster at hand. An accurate portrayal of catastrophes in the media would solidify the reality of the situation for millions of Americans across the country. More information allows us to better sympathize with those affected and makes us aware of the consequences of a similar disaster in our area.

Most of the time, the media does a good job reporting on disasters when they first strike, and in the immediate aftermath. However, short attention spans and the desire to report on the next big thing means they rarely continue the narrative beyond that. Many disasters have lasting impacts on communities for weeks, months, and even years. It is vital that we push for better data and information about ongoing impacts for the sake of everyone.

Oliver SperansComment