USA —A decade-long move toward prescribed fires and forest-thinning has not reduced the risk of catastrophic wildfires along the Front Range, federal and state authorities say.
And firefighting commanders increasingly favor letting more forests burn if people aren’t threatened instead of mounting all-out assaults. They say it’s smarter to let some fires burn naturally because this can help prevent huge fires that ruin forest seed stocks and watersheds.
“We haven’t even begun to see the worst of the worst,” said Ken Kerr, the Bureau of Land Management’s senior officer in the federal command center west of Denver. “Until we start finding ways to treat more forests to avoid the catastrophic conflagrations, we’re going to have problems. We can either pay now or we can pay much more later.”
The problem is that enormous, super-hot wildfires epitomized by the Hayman fire of 2002, which ravaged 214 square miles in Park, Teller, Jefferson and Douglas counties flare up more frequently to correct the imbalances caused by disruption of natural fire cycles. Human suppression of wildfires since the 1860s has created overly dense forests ready to burn.
Despite the shift toward “treating” forests proactively with prescribed fires and mechanical thinning, federal data show that the number and size of wildfires are growing.
Colorado’s 30 largest wildfires on record broke out after 1996, with 77 percent after 2002, the data show. The 397,607 acres burned in wildfires since 2008 are more than double the 167,608 acres burned during the previous four years. A state analysis found that the number of fires reported each year has tripled since the 1990s. Drought, beetle-killed pine trees and people in forests enable easier ignition.
Federal and state agencies must suppress wildfires that threaten people and property. U.S. taxpayers have devoted as much as $1.9 billion a year to snuff wildfires. In a single recent season, air tankers dropped more than 420,000 gallons of fire-retardant on Colorado wildfires.
A recipe for bigger fires
Yet each suppressed fire sets up bigger fires in the future.
“We’d like to see more resources devoted to a proactive approach forest thinning and appropriate prescribed fires as a management tool,” said deputy chief forester Joe Duda of the Colorado State Forest Service. “You’re forced into doing suppression because you have to react to fires where there’s property and watershed at risk.”
Colorado’s shift to forest thinning and prescribed fires was just beginning when U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton ignited the Hayman on June 8, 2002.
Federal agencies were developing a first “national fire plan” that recognized wildfires’ role in keeping forests healthy.
The unprecedented 2002 fire season that included the Hayman which destroyed 600 buildings and darkened skies from Vail to Burlington spurred this shift.
Since then, the amount spent annually on forest thinning and prescribed fires in Colorado has increased to $28.9 million last year from $18.3 million in 2001, according to data provided by Paul Langowski, Forest Service regional chief for fuels and fire ecology.
The number of prescribed fires increased to 236 last year from 73 in 2002. Forest crews last year treated nearly 50,000 acres statewide by thinning or prescribed fires, up from 32,525 acres in 2001.
But the risk of catastrophic wildfire remains higher than ever along the Front Range.
For lack of funds, Langowski said, forest-fuels reduction crews prioritize “interface” areas where communities abut public forests. In Colorado, there are 94,739 residences built on 2,000 square miles of private land that is next to forests, a Headwaters Economics analysis found.
Meanwhile, suppression still dominates Colorado’s overall approach to wildfire. Firefighters since 2002 have extinguished 15,809 fires 100 acres and bigger statewide, limiting the area burned to about 1.5 million acres, National Interagency Fire Center records show. The annual cost of putting out wildfires, most of them in the West, exceeds $1 billion. Nearly $11 billion was spent since 2002 to stop wildfires.
All this leaves fire managers in the federal command center on edge as they monitor a widening Western drought, 354 square miles burning in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness and the potential for explosive breakouts in the urban-wildland interface.
The prospect of hundreds of new homes and shops means even more suppression may have to be done. While insurers increasingly require use of nonflammable roof materials and clearing of “defensible spaces,” the availability of insurance allows development. If homes burn, they can be rebuilt.
“We’re just coddling and enabling people as long as we allow them to keep building in this situation,” said Bill Ott, the U.S. Forest Service operations director in the center.
Meanwhile, community resistance to prescribed fire which costs far less than manually thinning forests using chain-saws and heavy machinery complicates efforts to reduce forest fuels.
On March 22, a 50-acre prescribed fire southwest of metro Denver was part of the forest treatment push and it escaped. Winds whipped the blaze out of control, creating the 4,140-acre Lower North Fork fire, which killed three residents at their homes. Gov. John Hickenlooper initially banned all prescribed fires. He later ordered state public safety officials to take charge of controlled burns by the Colorado State Forest Service.
People living in and around forests now must deal with worsening threats in many areas. Some see the bone-dry, beetle-killed pines and worry about how they’d escape.
Those who experienced the destruction of the Hayman and other big fires also are grasping the slowness of recovery when forests are essentially sterilized, said Carol Ekarius, director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.
Natural healing process
Coalition volunteers are toiling to try to accelerate natural healing processes on the Hayman burn area. They’ve planted nearly 1 million trees and seeded 17,000 acres where ponderosa seeds were ruined.
And still they see barren mountainsides eroding, choking off streams, Ekarius said.
“If we had had fires that were the historic kind in these ponderosa forests, it would not take this long to regenerate. The forest ecosystem was so out of kilter,” she said. “It’ll be a lot cheaper for us to treat, to reduce the threat and the intensity of fire.
“Hayman was a very large, very hot fire that burned on highly erosive soils. When you add very large, very hot and very erosive together, you get a fire that takes a very long time to heal.”
In the end, natural fire cycles may be reasserting themselves faster than people can reduce forest fuels.
The trend toward larger, more-destructive wildfires has forced firefighting commanders to adjust tactics, Ott of the Forest Service said. “We’re going to ‘point protection’ rather than the massive response,” he said, referring to the positioning of firefighters around homes and property rather than directly attacking big flames.
Federal land managers also changed their classification system for wildfires in 2009 so that a single fire no longer must be designated only as a fire that can be allowed to burn or a fire that must be suppressed. The new system lets fire managers attack one part of a wildfire that threatens people while more easily letting other parts of that same wildfire burn.
For example, federal managers last month merely monitored the lightning-sparked Little Sand fire in wilderness north of Durango. But when wind patterns changed, driving the fire toward the second of two concentric circles on their map, commanders called in air tankers and ground crews to try to guide the wildfire away from people and private property near Pagosa Springs.
Nobody is willing to risk firefighters’ lives on the big fires, Kerr said. A dozen or so firefighters still die each year despite stricter safety protocols. One was incinerated when flames engulfed his vehicle on initial attack on the Coal Canyon fire in South Dakota in August.
“We’ve come to the realization that losing a house, losing some trees, is not worth losing some kid’s life,” Kerr said. “We are evaluating the risks.”