A bolt of lightning struck 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado, on a hot, dry day in July 2020. The environment was primed for a wildfire to erupt and for weeks, one scorched through the state, fueled by winds up to 40 mph.
“We could see the blaze at night over the Book Cliffs, and the smoke was just terrible,” said Wil Burns, LM Technical Lead for the Defense-Related Uranium Mines (DRUM) program.
The Pine Gulch Fire held the shortest record for the biggest fire in the Centennial State.
“It was the largest in Colorado history, until two more fires surpassed it later that year,” Burns said. “It'd been many, many decades since a fire that size. Then to be outsized in such a short time ... it wouldn't surprise me if this year there's another one.”
The stunning rhythm of record-breaking fires in Colorado is a pattern replicated across the globe due to unprecedented heat and drought conditions driven by climate change. Tasked with long-term custodianship of sites across the country that supported nuclear programs during the Cold War, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is a witness to the effects of a more intense wildfire season in several regions of the U.S.
LM is gearing up for a wildfire season that is not only more severe, but also longer. “This past year, I think all of our eyes were opened with multiple record-setting wildfires,” said Paul Kerl, office manager for LM’s Grand Junction Field Support Center.
In fact, just a few months before LM’s newly established Emergency Management (EM) Watch Office was stood up and proved instrumental in the organization’s response. The Watch Office proactively notified employees and worked with local emergency service organizations to monitor the fire and protect the LM workforce.
As recently as May 24 this year, the EM Watch Office, which monitors for disasters and emergencies across LM operations, notified program managers of a fire near the Durango Disposal Site in Colorado. Conversations with local emergency services organizations and LM operations staff informed the decision to postpone annual inspections out of an abundance of caution.
“Safety of our personnel is always our first and foremost concern,” Kerl said. “We constantly monitor LM’s Fire Watch Report for hazards, and even if the ambient air quality is poor from other fires in the region, we will proactively defer field work to protect the health of our team.”
Once a fire is extinguished and the area is confirmed safe, teams mobilize to assess damage and identify any necessary repairs at the site, Kerl said.
LM is taking additional measures where possible to further mitigate risks from natural disasters. Vulnerability assessments and resiliency plans are in progress at many sites to help address risks associated with their unique characteristics, for example.
“Preparedness is key when handling disasters that can arise unexpectedly and escalate rapidly,” said Kerl.
Where wildfires previously raged during the driest summer months, they are no longer predictable. “We have to be prepared year-round,” Burns said.
Each time a team from the DRUM program plans to visit and secure a mine, they check LM’s Fire Watch website to ensure there are no fires impacting the sites and the field crews. Burns said.
“With all of the risk factors at play, we have to be flexible in terms of what mines we go out to and when,” Burns said. He said DRUM teams consistently monitor conditions across their sites, so that if work is delayed at one, they will know where else they can execute safely.
Thanks in part to this flexibility, LM’s DRUM program is making swift progress on its goal of visiting 2,362 abandoned mines on public lands by the end of 2023. But one quick look at a wildfire map suggested this year would have its fair share of obstacles.
“This is the most active June I’ve seen so far,” Burns said, examining the map LM uses to track wildfires across the country. “We’re going to have to think outside the box, but we are never going to put anyone at risk.”
Burns said the DRUM program is bringing on additional field workers and training them across various tasks so that teams have the backup they need to prevent overexposure to smoke or heat. The program also coordinates with local wildland fire dispatch centers and the EM Watch Office to engage local, state, and federal organizations that can support fire response.
“Between our dedicated teams and our network of support, I am confident that our work will persist despite wildfire challenges,” Burns said.