Colorado is burning. Or at least it seems that way. Everyday we hear about a new fire – Paradox, Pagosa Springs, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and the High Park fire west of Fort Collins. The hot dry windy conditions let the flames jump through the forest faster than fire fighters can evacuate homes. Why are the forest suddenly so fire-prone?
Fire is a natural part of many forest ecosystems. To stay healthy, western forests burn on a regular basis. Both ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir are adapted to withstand frequent light burns. Lodgepole pines even need fire to open their cones and release their seeds. Fires were light and fast because fuels didn’t build up.
People have been managing the forests with fire for thousands of years. The Utes saw that deer and elk prefer the juicy nutritious new growth that sprouts on shrubs and grasses after a fire. The Utes burned areas of forest to create better forage for the animals. The more animals that came to the meadows, the more animals the Utes could hunt.
But the forests took a beating from 1860 to 1915, as miners came into the
mountains. Loggers cleared slopes of timber for mines and railroads. Prospectors lit fires to clear needles and other fine bits of vegetation off the rocks; often the fires got away from them.
As people saw that they were losing their forests, they reacted by putting out all forest fires. Every year, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and state agencies across the west send out thousands of forest fire fighters. Slurry bombers fly from their base at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport (US 36 Denver to Estes Park Milepost 46.5-47.5) and elsewhere to drop tons of a thick slurry of slippery pink fire retardant in front of fires to slow their spread. For fifty years, these fire crews have helped to contain forest fires that burn throughout the West. The forests got denser and trees spread onto grasslands.
But putting out every forest fire turned out to be a bad idea. As trees grew closer together, they competed for sunlight, space, water, and nutrients. Without something to thin them out, many more trees grow, but they are smaller and weaker than they should be. Insects, like the mountain pine beetle, and diseases take advantage of the weak densely growing trees and wipe out entire forests. Dead needles, branches and cones build up litter on the forest floor as well, becoming tinder for catastrophic crown fires later.
Crown fires are bad news for the forest. They kill everything in their path, leaving only smoking stumps behind. Trees that might survive a less intense fire are killed by crown fires. As these trees burn, their ability to hold the soil, provide seeds to replant the forest, and food and shelter for forest critters goes up in flames.
The 1994 Storm King fire outside of Glenwood Springs (I-70 Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction Milepost 111-116); the Buffalo Creek fire of 1996; the states’ largest fire, the Hayman fire of 2002 (west of I-25 Denver to Colorado Springs Milepost 167), the High Park fire of 2012 (west of Fort Collins) and other burns around the state are examples of the type of fires that can occur in the face of well-meaning fire suppression that created overly dense forests.
Today, many National Forests and Parks have instituted “let burn” and “controlled burn” policies. The idea is that smaller fires will thin out diseased and some younger trees. This will keep the canopy open, reduce the chances of a crown fire, and create a healthier forest overall. Unfortunately, many forests are already too dense to allow fires to burn without turning into a crown fires, such as happened at the North Fork fire (west of I-25 Louviers to Sedalia) earlier this spring.
The forests are also now full of things that we don’t want to burn – people, homes, mines, businesses. The only way to protect these structures is to clear out the trees for a hundred feet around them. When fire comes, buildings with trees close to them burn. But people are often reluctant to cut down nearby trees because the point of a cabin is to have it nestled in the woods.
An obvious remedy for too-dense forests is to thin them for timber. Unfortunately, the reason that the trees haven’t been logged already is because the ground is too steep or rough, and there is no market for the small softwood trees.
In the end, nature will restore the balance of trees per acre through disease, insects and intense fires. At this point, the best we may be able to do is know that nature’s remedy is coming and protect ourselves by creating defensible spaces around things we value. And hope that from the ashes grows better public awareness and support for better forest management techniques.