In June 2013, Darrell Fortner was in Denver, an hour’s drive away, when one of the worst fires in Colorado’s history bore down on his hometown of Black Forest, killing two people and incinerating 486 houses, including his. Also among the casualties were his four German shepherds and five cats. A year and a half later, he’s trying not to cry as he stands next to the handful of graves that run along his property line. Their bodies lay buried in the ground, under a foot of snow, their final resting places marked by brightly colored artificial flowers and small white crosses.
Had he been home that day, when the flames tore through his community, he adamantly believes he could have saved his animals; his house; and the computers, 11 work trucks and equipment needed to run his tree-trimming business. Instead, Fortner, a broad-shouldered man with a big belly and a full head of white hair, is shattered by what he has lost.
Fortner is far from alone in his pain. As the Mountain West gets warmer and drier, there doesn’t seem to be any end to what used to be called “fire season.” In July 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire in the central part of Washington state burned over 250,000 acres and destroyed 300 homes. Containment costs have been estimated at more than $100 million. The year before, in 2013, California’s Rim Fire outside of Yosemite National Park also burned over 250,000 acres, igniting 100 structures. The firefighting costs alone were upward of $127 million. June of that same year saw one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history: the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona, which destroyed 157 homes and killed 19 firefighters.