USA ––Economy no help with millions of acres ready to burn
CHEYENNE, Wyo. – As crews continue to fight a fast-moving wildfire in northern Colorado, some in the timber industry say the area’s fire danger has been heightened by U.S. Forest Service policies and an economy that discourages them from harvesting millions of acres of dead trees that stand ready to burn.
The High Park Fire has burned about 80 square miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. It is 15 percent to 20 percent contained but has been active on its west flank, where there are many beetle-killed trees, fire officials said.
As bad as the fire has been, timber experts say the forests of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming stand primed for more devastating burns.
Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said poor forest conditions in that area have increased fire danger.
“We do have a real unhealthy forest situation out there,” Crapser said. “We have too many trees per acre … and we need to look at ways to thin some of those forests out.”
A 2011 aerial survey showed about 4.6 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota have been affected by mountain pine beetles since the first signs of the outbreak in 1996. That’s up from about 4.3 million acres in 2010.
The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, which straddles the Colorado-Wyoming border west of Fort Collins, has been particularly hard-hit by beetles. The Forest Service imposed fire restrictions on the Wyoming side of the forest Thursday.
Traditionally, logging companies handle the job of thinning forests. But high fuel costs, low housing starts and, some lumber operators say, Forest Service policy have combined to sandbag their industry in recent years.
Despite fire conditions, Terry Thompson of Thompson Logging in Kamas, Utah, said the Forest Service is charging fees to move logging trucks through the forest in southern Wyoming, making timber cutting there less attractive.
Thompson said his company is conducting a timber sale near Steamboat Springs, Colo., and that the Forest Service charges $168 per truckload to use 40 miles of road to reach the mill in Encampment, Wyo. There’s no fee for using the state highway – but that’s a 130-mile trip.
“Hell, they should be paying us to take that stuff out of there,” Thompson said.
Larry Sandoval, a spokes-man for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Laramie, emphasized that the timber industry is a valuable partner with the Forest Service in reducing fuel hazards. He said the agency understands the importance of keeping the industry viable.
Nonetheless, Sandoval said the Forest Service has to look at the rules. He said the agency doesn’t have the latitude to waive road-maintenance requirements or unilaterally change contracts.
At a glance
Where firefighting efforts stand against the biggest wildfires burning across the West:
Arizona: A 480-acre wildfire near the Grand Canyon was 70 percent contained. A 2,860-acre fire and a 200-acre fire near Superior east of Phoenix were 50 percent contained.
Colorado: The 80-square-mile High Park Fire west of Fort Collins was 10 percent contained. Gov. John Hickenlooper banned open burning and private use of fireworks. Authorities determined that six small wildfires near the Breckenridge Nordic Ski Center were set intentionally.
New Mexico: The Little Bear Fire, which has scorched 58 square miles and destroyed at least 224 homes in the Sierra Blanca range near Ruidoso, has been 40 percent contained, but firefighting officials expressed concern about continued dry and sunny conditions.
Washington: A wildfire burned about 1,500 acres of sagebrush and grass between Othello and Royal City in south-central Washington.