Drought of 2012 demands special journalistic effort

The statement was stark in its honesty and gravity.

“There’s nothing that can be done to stop this fire under current weather and fuel conditions.”

It was printed in the pages of this newspaper and uttered a decade ago by then-Gov. Bill Owens about the Hayman Fire, an inferno southwest of Denver that exploded into the most destructive in Colorado history.

It could have just as easily been said this past week. In fact, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith essentially channeled Owens when the Fort Collins Coloradoan quoted him lamenting that there was “no hope for containment” of the High Park Fire as it raced across the beetle kill-ravaged forests northwest of Fort Collins. Barely a week old, High Park already has climbed to third on the state’s list of largest wildfires all-time.

Scanning The Daily Sentinel’s archives last week, I was struck by the similarities between the headlines at this time 10 years ago and those that have appeared in the last several days.

In 2002, coverage of conflagrations near Glenwood Springs, on Glade Park and north of Loma, as well as fires elsewhere in Colorado, dominated the Sentinel’s front page for days.

In retrospect, perhaps Owens’ declaration at the time that “it looks as if all of Colorado is burning today” wasn’t the irresponsible hyperbole ascribed to him by tourism officials.

The largest fires so far this year have erupted on the Front Range. But the June 8 start-up that threw a scare into Cedaredge residents showed that wind-fueled disaster is just as capable of striking on this side of the Continental Divide and offered a reminder that all of western Colorado is suffering either in severe or extreme drought.

Drought’s desiccated finger touches every one of us: the rancher who may be forced to sell his head of cattle because he can’t afford the skyrocketing cost of hay, the Redlands resident opening an irrigation valve and finding nothing for her parched grass and trees, the outdoor enthusiast casting a line on the Crystal River or barreling through Westwater Canyon on a raft, the family whose camping plans may be snuffed by the statewide fire ban.

Historic drought is the sort of remember-when event that’s impossible to encapsulate in a single story and illustration, or even a few.

Which is why throughout this summer you’ll see an occasional series in the Sentinel about drought’s myriad impacts on the Western Slope: agricultural, economic, environmental and otherwise.

It started Thursday with a package of articles and graphics defining drought and comparing 2002 with this year in key areas.

Our reporters turn around most articles ­— the reporting, interviewing and writing — in a matter of hours. A series requires much more time, planning, communication and resources to pull together. This drought series draws in our managing editor, graphics editor, photographers, copy editors and me.

Several of us met for more than an hour last Tuesday to brainstorm story ideas and begin plotting out several weeks’ worth of coverage. What you read in Thursday’s paper or online effectively was produced over the course of a day. Other editions in the series will take longer.

The late U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall put it adeptly: “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.”

What happens, though, when there is little or no water to run through your fingertips as you feed those shade trees you can’t imagine not having, or to push fish through a passage so they can spawn, or to grow hay to support the local beef industry? What happens when there’s no moisture to squelch a wildfire threatening lives and homes?

We’re finding that out now. And you’ll read about it here.

Mike Wiggins is the city editor of The Daily Sentinel. Email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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