On June 10, 2008, lightning sparked the Bridger Fire in a US Army training area in southeast Colorado, about twenty-five miles south of La Junta. Also known as the Piñon Canyon Fire, the blaze went on to become a significant wildfire, burning 46,612 acres of grassland in Las Animas County. Grasses and other vegetation in eastern Las Animas County were dry and primed for combustion.
The fire lasted less than two weeks and did not result in loss of life or severe property damage. To date, it is the only major fire on US Army property in Colorado, and public information about the blaze is relatively scarce compared to other fires of similar size. As the Bridger Fire spread onto private property, locals saw it as yet another reason to oppose the army’s planned expansion of the training site. The army eventually abandoned those plans in 2013.
2008 Fire Season
The 2008 fire season in the United States was relatively mild, a fact reflected in Colorado’s fire numbers for the year. By season’s end, just 141,964 acres had burned across the state. This was about a tenth of the acreage burned in 2002, one of the state’s worst seasons on record. Still, moderate to severe drought hit southeast Colorado by early June, as is typical for the region.
In 1983 the US Army established the 238,000-acre Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site (“Pinyon” is the army’s spelling) south of La Junta to provide training grounds for units from Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. Most of the acreage was acquired using eminent domain, that is, the government forced private landowners to sell their land. This made the site instantly controversial.
The army selected the site because the huge, grassy expanses of near-desert environment mirrored modern combat zones and had enough space to practice deployment of large units and heavy vehicles. What the army might not have considered is that the grasslands of Las Animas County had already suffered a foreign invasion. Cheatgrass, a Eurasian grass species that grows and reproduces faster than native grasses, had been conquering eastern Colorado since wagons and railroads first brought seeds in the early 1900s. When the Bridger Fire broke out, the army was attempting to expand the site by acquiring private property as well as public land from the Comanche National Grassland to the north.
In the early afternoon on June 10, 2008, lightning struck a large juniper near Red Rocks Canyon in the Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site, igniting the surrounding prairie grass. Low humidity and high winds had already made favorable fire conditions that day; army firefighters had just finished putting out a smaller fire a few miles away when they saw another smoke cloud and headed over to investigate. By the time they arrived, the fire already covered about ten acres. The army crew immediately began fighting the fire and called the Pueblo Fire Dispatch for backup. Soon, multiple crews converged on the Bridger Fire, which was being whipped into an erratic inferno by forty-mile-per-hour winds.
Spread and Containment
The day after it started, winds blew the Bridger Fire to more than 2,800 acres. The US Forest Service sent an air tanker and additional crews, bringing the total personnel count to fifty. That number climbed into the hundreds over the next two days, as the fire spread to more than 20,000 acres and jumped the Purgatoire River on the east side of the maneuver site. Local ranchers grew nervous as the fire approached the Purgatoire; some neighbors formed a volunteer fire crew to keep watch near steep canyons and other areas where firefighters could not be stationed.
On June 13, with the blaze having doubled to 40,000 acres and continuing to threaten private ranches near the Purgatoire, the Forest Service’s Type 2 Incident Management Team took over. Aaron Eveatt, the La Junta Fire Chief, said this transition amounted to a “night and day” change from army leadership, which he said was not keeping outside crews informed about the fire’s activity.
Repeated dousing from helicopters, a slowdown in the winds, and additional firefighters helped get the Bridger Fire 55 percent contained by June 16. The onset of cooler weather over the next several days allowed crews to achieve 100 percent containment by June 21. The fire caused an estimated $846,000 in damage to army property, but no major structures were lost and no injuries were reported. About 2,000 acres of private ranch land were scorched, and cattle had to be evacuated from canyon bottoms where they typically feed on lush vegetation.
Unlike other large fires around the state, the Bridger Fire did not see extensive recovery and restoration efforts because it caused little physical or economic harm. Perhaps the fire’s most significant effect was that it worked against the army’s plans for expanding the Pinyon Canyon site.
Many locals saw the blaze as evidence that having an army training ground nearby was dangerous. Although the fire was started by lightning, opponents of the site’s expansion pointed out that training exercises often involve firing live ammunition in a parched grassland, which would only increase the risk of large fires like the Bridger. State legislator Wes McKinely noted the site’s fire danger during a tour in September 2007. Later, he said the Bridger Fire showed that “there is absolutely no need to triple [the] size” of the training site, because the army “can’t even take care of what they’ve got.”
The army eventually relented to public pressure and halted its planned expansion in 2013.
While the large conflagrations in Colorado’s mountain forests often get the most attention, the Bridger Fire is a reminder that huge fires can break out anywhere in the state. It also points to the problem of invasive cheatgrass, some 120 years after its introduction. Cheatgrass is known to have large bursts of early-season growth after even a small amount of rain. The rising average temperatures, more intense rainstorms, and earlier and longer droughts that accompany climate change mean cheatgrass is likely to grow taller and dry out faster, increasing the chance of intense grass burns.
In addition, recent research has shown that some severely burned forests are coming back as grasslands, meaning that prairie blazes like the Bridger Fire will likely be more common in the future.