Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 28, 2012

Colorado Springs: The (potentially catastrophic) consequences of density and proximity

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 28, 2012

Walls of flame and towers of smoke are exploding across several Western states.

A life-long friend and his family live in Colorado Springs. Pike’s Peak, Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Mountain, and Manitou Springs are very real to me. The Flying W Ranch, destination for my first teen trip without parents, has been burned to cinders.  So, I have mostly focused on the Waldo Canyon Fire (seen above).

There are more than 32,000 evacuees.   According to the Colorado Springs Gazette perhaps 200 to 300 homes have been destroyed. The fire is so intense and widespread that precise numbers cannot be confirmed.   Between the time I post this and you read it, these consequences could multiply.

Tuesday night the fire doubled in size.  As of Thursday morning, over 18,000 acres have burned. The fire is only about 5 percent contained. High heat and low humidity persist.  The weather forecast for Thursday is, “Partly cloudy with temperatures rising towards the mid 80s. Winds NE at 5 to 10 mph.” The best forecast in many days.  Still, according to the US Forest Service, the fire’s growth potential is assessed as “extreme”.  (For other updates: KRDO is a local television station.)

Waldo Canyon Fire as of Wednesday afternoon

It could be even worse.  It will be worse, somewhere sooner or later.  In late August 1910 over 3 million acres of the Northern Rockies were simultaneously ablaze.

Much of the mountain west remains sparsely populated.  The threat to humans is reduced by plenty of space (and time) in which turbulence can dissipate.   But in El Paso County (where Colorado Springs is located), the population has increased from 397,000 in 1990 to 622,000 in 2010.

Colorado Springs is a beautiful place with a diverse economy.  Greater concentration is not surprising.  Eighty-two percent of Americans now live in urban areas.  Until the Great Recession we were rapidly relocating population from the wet, cold, old North to the dry, hot, sparkling South and West.  Along the way, we were relocating from the cold-threats of snow and ice to the hot-threats of wildfire and hurricane.

On their way a few million have said something like, “I won’t miss these winters, don’t cha know.” I would be surprised if one person has said, “Yes, I have decided to exchange the risk of nor’easters for tropical cyclones” or  “I prefer the risk of sustained drought to several more winters of bitter cold.”  But this is the choice — risk-informed or not — that is made.

There are wonderful — truly wonder-full — reasons to live in Colorado Springs. Some might include among these reasons an average annual precipitation of only 16.5 inches.  Since October 1, 2011 the city has received a total of 4.01 inches of precipitation. All of Colorado is experiencing drought.  The Northwest third of the state is in the midst of an exceptional drought. Drought is cyclic on the Front Range.

Never before has this region supported the population now concentrated along I-25 between Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins.  As recently as 1905 the population of the entire state of Colorado was less than the current population of Colorado Springs.

But we can program our processes or manipulate our spreadsheets or design our products or fulfill digital orders (or sell to those with such jobs) from almost anywhere.  Why not do it with a mountain or ocean out our window?

As it turns out,  oceans are more popular than mountains.

Along with most of the world, the US population is increasing its geographic density and its proximity to the coasts. A variety of benefits unfold from these choices.  For example, the densest cities tend to be the most efficient users of energy. But these choices also increase certain risks.  Density multiplies the potential economic and human consequences of any realized threat.  Coastal proximity increases vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding, two of the more deadly and destructive threats.

Droughts and wildfire, hurricanes and floods are older than the human race.  I will leave to others the debate over whether the threat-level is increasing.  It is undeniably clear that humans amplify these threats by making choices that increase our vulnerability… even as we gather together in fatter targets… even as we depend on water, food, pharma, and other essentials to be delivered through more complicated, extended, and technologically-dependent processes.

Making such choices — individually or collectively — is not in itself my concern.  Many of my most meaningful choices have involved considerable risk and I have experienced both positive and negative consequences.  In retrospect I might engage some risks with an amended strategy, but I would very seldom choose to avoid the risk… and even in retrospect cannot be sure how a different approach might unfold.

I am concerned when risky choices are taken thoughtlessly — with no awareness of the risk — and, especially, when one person’s choice becomes another person’s consequence.  Embracing risk is an essential aspect of creativity.  Denying risk is probably the fastest path to catastrophe.


This is part of a series of posts examining possible connections between catastrophes, resilience, and civil liberties and implications for homeland security.   Reader comments are fundamental to the value of the series.

Early June 28 I received the following Email, “Phil, I have not commented. Probably shouldn’t under my own name and feel disingenuous using another identity.  But the dialogue you have stimulated is worth more than you may know. I hope it continues.  The substance is valuable even, maybe especially, when I disagree with it.  Potentially as valuable is the example of intelligent conversation.  The last two weeks serious people have listened to each other, contributed to each other, disagreed with one another and continued consideration in a way that makes a mind want more.  While I appreciate your output, I’m really writing to thank your commentators.”

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Comment by Pascal

June 28, 2012 @ 10:28 am

Is this another way to say the same thing?

Risk = (Threat * or / Vulnerability)* Consequence

Often we cannot do much about threats, but we can choose to either multiply or divide our vulnerability.

Reducing vulnerability can be achieved using either threat-specific or capability-based approaches.

Regarding avatars (Pascal is not my real name): I think it depends on what is being said. We should not attack under cover. But I think we can ask questions or support while remaining anonymous.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 28, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

Pascal, I will accept the distillation. I am also trying to emphasize the importance of recognizing — and accepting responsibility for — the vulnerabilities we self-create.

Further to the issue of vulnerability, I like your point that if we are going to attack we should do so using our own name. But, I will also note, there are some who would contribute a great deal to our understanding — attacking or advocating — that face more consequences than most of us if they use their own name.

I dislike personal attacks from anyone. I appreciate considered judgments even if the signature says Donald Duck.

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