Snow dusts the San Juan Mountains, hunting season is in full swing, and fire season is over with hardly a whimper. Out of whack forests require year-round work to avoid wildfire. Durango, Colorado. Ron Klatt, fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest’s Columbine Ranger District, stands in front of a controlled burn in Fosset Gulch, east of Bayfield, on Friday. Out of whack forests require year-round work to avoid wildfire. Durango, Colorado. Butch Knowlton, director of emergency preparedness for La Plata County, was on the scene from the very beginning of the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
So why are there 18 thinning projects and prescribed burns either planned or under way – right now – in the forests surrounding Pagosa Springs, Durango and Dolores, covering some 5,000 acres?
It’s because wildfire is never far from the thoughts of Western foresters, who know the next catastrophic burn is one dry spell, and one lightning strike, away.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are in a race against time and overtaxed resources to fend off the next fire season like 2002, when five Western states, including Colorado, sustained their biggest wildfires in recorded history.
The agencies have undergone a complete change of heart in the last decade, with research showing the folly of 100 years of fire suppression that has left forests choked with a ready supply of fuel.
They are now convinced that forests must not only be thinned, but opened up with the clearings that were there historically. And it wouldn’t hurt, in some forests, if a low-intensity fire burned through every 35 years or so.
There are major obstacles, however, standing in the way of this new vision for Western forests.
The public, accustomed to woodlands thick with trees and undergrowth, lags behind in its understanding. And the sheer scale of the problem, covering as it does, millions of acres, cowers the ambitions of even the most dedicated forester.
“To do this right, it needs to be done over a long period of time,” said Ron Klatt, fire management officer for the Columbine Ranger District in Bayfield. “There are so many acres out of whack.”
In the summer of 2002, Butch Knowlton stood on the eastern shore of Vallecito Reservoir and watched the rampaging Missionary Ridge Fire spin itself into a giant vortex in the bowl-like basin formed by Root Creek. The rotating winds of the fire spawned three tornadoes on the western side of the dried-out reservoir, a quarter-mile away.
As Knowlton, director of emergency preparedness for La Plata County, watched in disbelief, the tornadoes roared up the slopes surrounding the reservoir. Full-grown ponderosa pines and spruce trees were ripped out of the ground and flung 150 to 200 feet up the side of the mountain.
An excited slurry bomber pilot flying at 40,000 feet above the fire radioed Knowlton.
“(He) said, ‘I don’t know what the heck is going on down there guys, but I just had a column of smoke go past me and it looks just like an atom bomb,'” Knowlton said.
The Missionary Ridge Fire burned 70,000 acres before it was done, and destroyed 46 homes. It was part of one of the worst fire seasons in history. Nearly 7 million acres burned in 2002, along with 835 homes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, costing $1.6 billion to fight.
“What we’re doing now is we’re paying the price of 50 or 100 years of really bad forest management throughout the West,” said Dr. Philip Rundel, a professor of biology and member of the Institute of the Environment at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Rundel said conditions are so bad that foresters often find themselves deprived of one of their primary techniques to return forests to a more natural condition.
“The fuels have built up to the point that trying to fix them by doing controlled burning is much more difficult now,” he said.
Yet controlled burning remains an essential part of any plan to reduce fuels in the nation’s forests, Klatt said.
The only other option is mechanical thinning, which takes a variety of forms – from fallers taking down one tree at a time, to heavy equipment that can chew through the forest with such ferocity that no one is allowed within 300 feet when they’re in operation.
These “hydromowers,” as they are generically known, utilize a spinning drum of carbide-tipped teeth that reduce trees up to 12inches in diameter to splinters on the forest floor. Another pass creates mulch that serves to retain moisture and reduce erosion.
The “hydroaxe” utilizes a spinning blade that can reduce a small tree to a stump flush with the ground. Hydroaxes are particularly effective in pinon and juniper country, where the growth remains relatively close to the ground.
But there is a downside to leaving the forest floor covered in mulch, particularly for trees such as ponderosa pines, whose seeds need to reach bare soil to take hold.
“You can do mechanical treatment, but it’s not the same,” Klatt said. “We like to put fire back into these sites when we can because it takes the duff layer off, so you can get regeneration.”
But prescribed fires have become problematic in the West because the buildup of fuels has been accompanied by a buildup of houses.
Research Forest Ecologist Merrill Kaufmann, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, points out that had the Hayman Fire near Denver been about 20 miles to the north, 8,000 to 10,000 homes would have been within its boundaries.
The 2002 fire – the largest in Colorado’s history – burned nearly 140,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and cost more than $40 million to suppress.
“We had a number of fires that have skirted between housing areas,” Kaufmann said. “We shudder to think we can’t keep doing that.”
It has been difficult, however, to convince homeowners they should not build in certain places, or that they should maintain a “fuel management zone” of 100 to 200 feet around their homes without trees or debris that will burn.
The whole point for many forest dwellers is to live ensconced in the trees, said David Hessel, of the Colorado State Forest Service. Hessel is involved in the Front Range Fuel Treatment Partnership, which has the daunting task of dealing with the buildup of fuels in Colorado’s Front Range forests.
Approaching a forested hillside on County Road 501 north of Bayfield, Klatt pointed to the green slope and explained there was an entire subdivision hidden there.
Forest Lakes subdivision has flirted with disaster on several occasions over the past few years. In July 2003, lightning sparked a fire 300 yards from the subdivision in rough terrain. Slurry drops knocked the fire out of the tree crowns, where it could have quickly taken off.
In May of the same year, two men lost control of a brush fire set to clear some land three miles west of the subdivision. Again firefighters got the blaze under control.
But officials remain concerned about the heavily forested subdivision, one of the largest in La Plata County.
“A lot of the landowners aren’t interested in cutting any trees,” Hessel said.
Aside from convincing the public that the forest is not necessarily supposed to resemble a green blanket draped across the landscape, Hessel and Kaufmann are struggling with how to pay for the thinning they hope to do on 500,000 acres along the Front Range over the next 10 years.
Klatt plans to thin some 57,000 acres in the Durango area over the next five years, most of it in the San Juan National Forest.
Unfortunately, most of the trees that need to come out of the woods are too small to interest commercial loggers.
“That’s our biggest problem right now,” said Randy Lewis, a fuel specialist for the Bureau of Land Management who works at the San Juan Public Lands Center. “What do we do with the small-diameter trees, because there’s no biomass industry of any kind. Nobody wants them. The market for poles saturates quickly. They don’t make good firewood. There’s just no use for it.”
Hessel says there are uses for the smaller trees he wants cut, from fuel to generate electricity to chips for flake board. But those uses require a substantial capital investment to build a power plant or production facility, something Lewis says companies are so far unwilling to do in Colorado.
“If somebody is going to build a biomass plant for something, they’re going to want a guaranteed supply,” Lewis said. “I don’t know if we can do that at this point in time because of the various problems of either budget, appeals or whatever.”
In fact, says Klatt, the Forest Service can’t even guarantee there will continue to be a National Fire Plan or Healthy Forest Initiative, which have led to the fuel reduction efforts across the West.
The office of U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis issued a press release in August, saying 2004 had been the most successful year ever for fuel reduction projects, with 2.6 million acres treated across the West. McInnis, a Grand Junction Republican who will leave office by the end of the year, sponsored the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
“It is a great thrill to see a bill that we poured our heart and soul into paying such tremendous dividends on behalf of our nation’s communities and the environment,” McInnis said.
Yet frontline troops like Klatt remain nervous about funding.
“There’s a concern that National Fire Plan money might go away,” Klatt said.
Klatt points to the myriad of other demands on the nation’s resources – chief among them the war on terrorism – coupled with the nation’s tendency to “move on to something else.”
“So far we’ve been through a couple of different administrations and different political parties and they’ve all supported (fuels reduction),” Klatt said.
Klatt said he would like to see funding for fuel reduction projects included as a normal part of the Forest Service’s budget, rather than a special component that can be taken away.
Hessel and his colleagues agree, saying the scope of the problem in Western forests is such that even a successful program with private industry would only be part of the answer.
“It’s a multibillion dollar problem to solve,” Kaufmann said.
Finding no takers for his small trees, Hessel contracted with private companies to take a Hydroaxe to the woods along the Front Range, which cost about $450 an acre.
Although it doesn’t remove the fuel from the forest, the Hydroaxe redistributes it to the forest floor, where it won’t serve as “ladder” fuel. Small trees can carry flames into the tops of bigger trees to create a “crown fire,” an unstoppable inferno that firefighters can only stand back and watch. Both Missionary Ridge and Hayman became crown fires.
Kaufmann pointed out that some of the forest that needs to be thinned is too dense for the Hydroaxe. The cost would go up to $800 an acre, and there would be so much chewed-up fuel on the forest floor that even a smoldering fire would kill the trees.
Also, thinning with a Hydroaxe doesn’t take out any larger trees to create openings that were historically a part of the forests, Kaufmann said. And here, science runs into skeptical environmentalists.
“When we see projects where they cut only big trees, which are the most fire resistant, we don’t think that’s fire mitigation,” said Amy Mall, senior forest policy analyst for the National Resource Defense Council in Washington, D.C. “The Forest Service is spending millions to plan and carry out these projects. Instead they could spend the money on fire-resistant roofs and clearing land around homes.”
Klatt knows the best-received fuel reduction projects are those in the wildland-urban interface – lands within a mile and a half of subdivisions and communities.
As he rolls out a colorful map on a picnic table at his Bayfield headquarters, detailing the fuel reduction projects in the Columbine Ranger District over the next five years, Klatt points out that most of the projects are in or near Zone 1, the wildland-urban interface.
All told, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management hope to treat 276,000 acres on the San Juan Public Lands over the next 10 years, if the money – and public support – hold out.
Oddly enough, Klatt believes the Missionary Ridge Fire could help.
“It brought religion to the whole idea of fuels reduction,” Klatt said. “Now it wasn’t some sort of abstract theory that you were trying to tell people they needed to do around their homes. After Missionary Ridge, people were calling us instead of us calling them.”