Living on the west side of Fort Collins, Colorado, I’ve watched the progression of the High Park Fire for the past three weeks. As of June 29, the fire burned over 87,000 acres, destroyed at least 259 homes and claimed at least one life. The accompanying photo is from my back yard on June 16.
For a short time, the High Park Fire ranked as the most destructive in Colorado history, but on June 23, the Waldo Canyon Fire caught and quickly spread outside of Colorado Springs. Record triple-digit heat, dry air and gale-force winds fueled the fire, which tripled in size over the next three days. Much of this fire is in developed suburban areas, and by July 1 it had burned about 18,000 acres, destroyed at least 350 homes and taken at least two lives. Sadly, the title of “most destructive Colorado fire” quickly changed hands.
While these fires stand out for their destructiveness, they are far from isolated incidents. Numerous other wildfires currently are burning in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and across the West.
The graphic images and tragic stories emerging from the heat, smoke and ash of wildfires attract extensive news coverage, but the fires are, in fact, one symptom of a more widespread, if less dramatic tragedy – drought. The heat and dry conditions have spread across much of the United States, including critical crop and livestock production areas, raising fears of historic economic losses to agriculture.
Drought, of course, is not a new phenomenon, and neither are wildfires. Last summer we followed the trials of farmers and ranchers across Texas and the Southern Plains as they struggled through their own historic drought – one that continues in parts of the region.
We entered this year hopeful that the rains would return, pastures would flourish and crops would break yield records. The shortage of cattle created optimism that high prices would boost returns while stimulating heifer retention and herd growth wherever ranchers had surplus grass. Farmers planted 96.4 million acres of corn this spring according to the USDA, 5 percent more than 2011, further raising hopes that lower feedyard cost of gain would drive up prices of feeder cattle.
Much of that optimism has, pardon the pun, gone up in smoke, as growing numbers of ranchers consider weaning and selling calves early, culling cow herds and purchasing winter feed. Things could still change in some areas, but this year is not shaping up the way we hoped.
But it is worth reminding ourselves that when rains return after a fire, plants grow with renewed vigor and ecosystems recover. Likewise, agriculture will recover. Eventually, the rains will come. Pastures will turn green and lush, and grain will overflow bins. Calf prices will climb sky-high. The rains will come.