Dying forests increase wildfire danger across the West

Dying forests increase wildfire danger across the West

17 August 2008

published by www.steamboatpilot.com

USA — Close your eyes, and a 3,000-acre wildfire on the banks of the New Fork River in Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness crackles deceptively, like a soothing campfire. But any sense of security is shattered quickly by the blaze’s more violent noises. The sounds of falling century-old pines clap across the meadow like gunshots, and the fire roars like a passing train when trees suddenly torch from the ground up.

On the morning of July 31, smoke hangs low like a blue-tinted fog over the lakes and pastures of Sublette County, Wyo., obscuring mountain views and filling the air with a smoky scent even in Pinedale, about 20 miles south.

Officials think the blaze, dubbed the New Fork Lakes Fire, was caused two days earlier by an abandoned campfire. An incident command post is just starting to take shape at a fire that will quadruple in size in less than a week, forcing temporary area closures and an increase in firefighting personnel from 162 to 323.

Semis and moving trucks roll into camp delivering food, water, Gatorade, showers and other supplies that will allow wildland firefighters to work 14-day shifts. Radio transmissions fill the air as Steve Markason huddles with others around a map discussing strategy. The forest surrounding the command post is interspersed with the tell-tale red needles of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle.

“This (wildfire) will go until it rains — hard,” said Markason, who leads a helitack crew out of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and is training to become an incident commander. “It’s burning really nicely.”

Having just finished a course in ecosystem management — and a final project on the mountain pine beetle’s relation to hazardous fuels — Markason has been thinking a lot about how fires will behave in the West’s dying forests.

The same is true of officials in Northwest Colorado, where the devastation of lodgepole forests is more total. Many are fearfully wondering what will happen when a red sea of beetle-kill trees turns orange with flames. And Bob Kittridge is surprised we have yet to find out.

“I think we dodged the bullet last year,” said Kittridge, crew chief of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Wildland Fire Suppression Team. “How? I don’t know. It’s truly not an if. It’s a when.”

Worst to come

In an epidemic unprecedented in its scale, the mountain pine beetle is decimating forests across the Rocky Mountain West and beyond. In just three to five years, the majority of Colorado’s large-diameter lodgepole pine trees will be dead. Of all the concerns the devastation raises, fire stands out in the eyes of many.

At the Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy at Western State College in Gunnison in June, Kittridge told his class of introductory students what seemed to be the only logical conclusion.

“It’s dead,” he said. “It’s dry. It’s going to catch easier. Fuels are taking on the same characteristics of slash, except standing up, which is more dangerous due to crowning.”

A crown fire is one that advances across the tops of trees or shrubs, more or less independent of a surface fire.

“If you’ve got dead needles still on the tree, that’s going to act as ladder fuel,” said Tara Mehall, a state forester based in Steamboat who attended the academy, “so you’re going to have a pretty active crown fire.”

That’s bad news for Mehall, Kittridge and others tasked with putting out such blazes.

“We just don’t do very well with crown fires,” said Dave Steinke, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

In British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle has claimed 33.3 million acres of pine forests, Jim Snetsinger said there is science to back up Kittridge’s conclusion.

“We’ve done some research into fire behavior in red, dead stands,” said Snetsinger, the province’s chief forester. “My sense is it burned a lot quicker. It can carry a crown fire pretty quickly. It can run pretty quickly.”

As alarming as the current situation may be, Markason and other fire experts say the worst dangers are to come. Dense concentrations of heavy fuels on the surface make for more intense, scarring fires, Markason said, and that’s exactly the type of fuel loading in store for pine forests throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

Andy Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said there is an elevated fire risk while red needles remain on beetle-kill trees. Once those needles fall off, fire risks fall to pre-epidemic levels or below. But there is a second and greater elevation in risk when trees fall to the ground, one that Cadenhead said could last decades.

“It’s at least a decade away,” Cadenhead said. “It may be several decades away. … Fires with these conditions are probably going to be detrimental to the regeneration of the forest” because of their impact on soil conditions.

Action or ashes

On the afternoon of June 11, light snow covered the ground and damp trees filled the forest along Routt County Road 36. While evidence of the mountain pine beetle epidemic could be seen on standing dead trees and ones that had fallen to the ground, its dangers were easy to ignore among the overall calm of the Strawberry Park forest.

But the sense of danger heightened as a bone-chilling gust of wind hit a damp sweater, and the unmistakable pop-shred-thud of a falling tree filled the air.

The tree fell harmlessly, but that’s not always the case.

Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale hopes people don’t have to be scared into addressing the risks posed by the county’s glut of dead and dying trees. He is trying to figure out how to change the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality of many Routt County residents.

At breakfast earlier that morning, Vale motioned with exasperation at a snow-covered sidewalk out the window of The Shack Café in downtown Steamboat Springs. Vale doubted many were worrying about wildfire on such a morning.

“The challenge I’m having in Routt County is the mitigation side,” Vale said about efforts to get residents to safeguard their homes. “I think our worst enemy to get that done is this snow. We just about get people engaged, and then it snows. … I’m getting a sense that people don’t understand the risks around them.”

John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, shares Vale’s concern. While touring the Willow Creek Pass subdivision in North Routt County nine days later, Twitchell pointed to homes surrounded by enormous dead trees.

“That’s not a firefighter’s dream,” Twitchell said. “More a nightmare. This is what’s got us concerned is thick, thick pine like this adjacent to homes. … There’s a surprising amount of homes at risk.”

Twitchell was touring the subdivision with North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley and Willow Creek Pass homeowner Dave Hessel. The three were discussing a wildfire protection plan that involves the creation of fuel breaks on public lands around the subdivision and the creation of defensible space around the homes themselves. Twitchell said such an approach is the only way to effectively address such a widespread catastrophe.

“What I see is everyone at first tries to attack this by themselves,” Twitchell said. “But coordinated action across boundaries is always going to have the best outcome.”

Reilley said fuel breaks and defensible space help eliminate the difficulty posed by crown fires.

“That’s what the fuel break will hopefully allow us to do,” Reilley said. “Get fire to the ground where we can fight it.”

Twitchell stressed the importance of creating defensible space around homes by noting the limited resources that exist for fighting wildfires. He said firefighters sometimes must decide to let one house burn in order to save two others.

“Unfortunately, it comes down to those kind of choices,” Twitchell said. “Everyone thinks we can put a fire truck on their home, but there’s no guarantee any of these people are around on a given day. How many firefighters are we going to muster with volunteers? Depends on the day.

“You’ve got to do something to help us. Our first rule of thumb is to keep us safe. We’re not going to do you any good if we’re crispy critters.”

Difficult necessity

“At times, you couldn’t see the eight buildings,” said Neil Willems, building and grounds superintendent at the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County. “The smoke was that intense. You didn’t know what was going on.”

The ground still crunches beneath footsteps at the scorched site of the June 2007 “Y Fire.” Pine needles — once green, then red, now black — cover the remains of an old fireline that snakes through the torched forest. Grounds foreman John Carmichael said the fire went from the ground to the crown in about 30 seconds and carried active flames for five to six hours.

“You could see the flames shooting out above this rise,” said Center Director Julie Watkins, motioning out the window of her office at the ranch. “That situation made believers out of people who were not being aggressive.”

Watkins deals daily with the “real difficult” decision to start clear-cutting the property of dead lodgepole pine, which makes up an overwhelming majority of the ranch’s tree population.

“We’re on schedule to complete the logging of areas really key to defensible space,” Watkins said. “And then we get to start dealing with the trail system.”

Snow Mountain Ranch is a place that relies heavily on return visitors, sometimes across generations, and the removal of trees has changed one of the most cathartic experiences of visiting the ranch: a heavily wooded and tranquil arrival that served as a shift from U.S. Highway 40 to the ranch.

“You transitioned into this special place that their families have been coming to for years,” Watkins said. “Suddenly, we were disrupting that memory for them. But from a safety standpoint, we just had to do it.”

On July 11, Leela Nadler, a Colorado State University student, sat with a group of girls on a footbridge over a small creek at Snow Mountain Ranch. She’s been coming to the ranch for 15 years to attend the Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp.

“When I came here as a kid, there were trees everywhere,” said Nadler, who was at the camp’s kickoff cookout. “It’s really sad.”

Across stump fields, several nearby buildings were visible from the picnic area, but Nadler said she remembers a time when the trees were so thick you couldn’t see any of them. Paradoxically, Nadler has lost her bearings with the increased visibility.

“I actually have a hard time finding my way around,” she said. “It’s still really nice. It’s just sad because it doesn’t look like it used to. I guess I’ll get used to it.”

While difficult, the blow is certainly being softened by the knowledge that clearing operations may have saved some of the ranch’s largest buildings from last year’s fire.

“I’m very confident that if we hadn’t done our logging, we would have lost eight buildings,” Watkins said. “It was clear that we saved structures because of clear-cut.”

Costly cuts

Clearing trees from a property can be difficult for more than sentimental reasons. Tree removals can be expensive. Prices are increasing with the amount of work being created by the mountain pine beetle, sometimes approaching $100 a tree.

“Some of these tree removals are probably asking people for more than they paid for the lot years and years ago,” Carmichael said.

Even with the volume of logging under way at Snow Mountain Ranch, there are no loggers willing to pay for the wood or remove it at no cost.

“We don’t profit at all from the removal,” said Willems, who noted that the ranch tries to use as much of the wood as possible in such forms as fences, benches, parking lot barricades, wood chips for playgrounds and firewood bundles for sale at the front office.

Snow Mountain Ranch is supported through fees for services, membership fees and donations.

At Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County, homeowner Jim Burton said he and his neighbors might have been able to make a profit off their trees had they recognized the need to remove them earlier.

“It’s simple supply and demand,” Burton said. “It’s a shame we didn’t do this before. Now, we’re just hoping to minimize our expense.

“We’ve just got to deal with it from a fire danger standpoint. It’s very significant, and it’s going to be worse next summer.”

A modified approach

There’s a few days growth on Markason’s beard. He coughs sporadically throughout the day, blaming it on a career of inhaling smoke and dust. Behind a pair of sunglasses are the tired eyes of a man who lied awake two nights earlier, watching the New Fork Lakes Fire glow orange off the mountainsides, appearing to be closer and more intense than it actually was.

He drives to a staging area near the Willow Creek Guard Station, where Hotshots with dirt-covered faces and cloudy eyes emerge from the woods — pulaskis, shovels and other tools in tow — after constructing a fireline. Another Hotshot crew immediately replaces them, its members already sweating under the weight of the required dark green pants and bright yellow shirts made of flame-resistant Nomex.

While property owners face potentially enormous bills to protect their homes from wildfires, Markason notes that officials are trying to spend far less money than they used to fighting the blazes. At the New Fork Lakes Fire, firelines are being constructed to protect private property and a Boy Scout camp, but the fire is otherwise being allowed to burn unimpeded into the wilderness.

“The big take-home message for fires like this is we’re taking a different approach,” said Markason, who says he’s interested in disturbance ecology and the diversity it creates. “This is pretty much doing naturally what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s leaving a mosaic on the landscape.”

The different approach to wildland firefighting is called appropriate management response. It’s a resource-management driven approach to wildfires, as opposed to the suppression-driven methods that have dominated the past 100 years. Many think those methods contributed to the mountain pine beetle epidemic by allowing lodgepole forests to grow too thick, old and susceptible to a beetle attack.

“Smokey Bear has done a really good job of convincing people that fire is bad,” Kittridge said.

But attitudes are changing.

In between bites at The Shack Café, Vale explains one reason appropriate management response is a tough sell. Firefighters like fires, Vale said, and they like putting them out. This suppression-driven attitude was evident in Kittridge’s introductory class, where the eyes of young firefighters glazed over when discussion turned to appropriate management response.

But while it’s not the sexiest course of action in the minds of these students — who eagerly waited their turn to try out a drip torch — it may be even less appealing to property owners who find themselves in the vicinity of a blaze. Kittridge told his students that gung-ho suppression was largely the result of public pressure and “ranchers who have a senator on speed dial.”

“Of all natural disasters, fire’s the one they expect us to control,” said Lynn Barclay, a Craig-based fire mitigation education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. “With fires, people expect us to be superhuman. … We haven’t allowed fire to play its natural job.”

Resource management aside, officials say the mountain pine beetle epidemic creates environments so dangerous that they simply won’t send firefighters into them.

“There isn’t a tree or a house that’s more important than a life,” Kittridge said. “They grow back — both of them.”

Kittridge told his students that standing dead trees, known as snags, are the second-leading cause of all wildland fire fatalities. Colorado now has 1.5 million acres of snags created by the mountain pine beetle alone, and anything from a gust of wind to a footstep can bring them down.

“You don’t hear them,” Steinke said. “You can’t see them. They just kill.”

While Cadenhead doesn’t agree that fire suppression was a contributing factor to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, he does agree that fires should be allowed to play more of a natural role in the absence of other management options that help foster age-class diversity in the forest.

“Last year, we played with (appropriate management response),” Kittridge said. “This year we’re putting it in place. There’s going to be some changes.

“Why don’t we ride horse and buggy anymore? Because we found a better way.”

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