Our forests have changed and will change dramatically following the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic. The Summit County Wildfire Council, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Forest Service, homeowners associations, private landowners and nonprofits have completed projects that now make many of our homes and public infrastructure less vulnerable to potential wildfires. But there's still work to be done, with limited federal and state funding, we must be smart about it.There are three spaces we need to address to adequately respond to potential wildfires. The first is in our homes - we need to be prepared to leave quickly and know how to make that decision. The next space is the area surrounding our homes, called defensible space. The third space is more than 200 feet from homes and infrastructure extending far into the forest.The conditions in our forests where most of the mature lodgepole pines were killed by the beetles have changed recently. Research and experience tells us that after the trees die from beetle attacks their wildfire hazard increases due to lower fuel moisture content. The same research and experience also tells us that after the needles fall off, which is primarily the current situation in Summit County, the wildfire hazard is reduced substantially. Later the dead trees start falling down in large numbers. Within this changing environment, we need to work on managing forested areas to protect our homes, infrastructure, and ecological and economic values.Again, research helps us understand what some of these forests will look like in the future. Areas that have been logged will likely be lodgepole pine forests again, with some of them coming back as dense forested areas. Areas that have not been treated will generally be more diverse with aspen and spruce present in a higher proportion than the logged areas. Dense lodgepole pine forests may need thinning in the near future if we want them to stay at a lower wildfire hazard. We also need to look carefully at sensitive areas that may have a large fuel loading from fallen dead lodgepole pines.Our forests will also be changing due to climate changes that appear to be more dramatic in Colorado and particularly in the High Country. These are the same conditions that led to the large extent of the beetle epidemic and the growth of wildfire sizes in Colorado. We must incorporate climate change, wildfire hazard, watershed protection, human impacts and other variables into our thinking and planning for the future forests of Summit County.Forest types and conditions are not uniform in Colorado or even in Summit County. What works best to reduce wildfire danger and protect watersheds along the Front Range may not be effective in Summit County. In some locations the best approach may be to leave the forest alone, letting Mother Nature take her course. Other locations require proactive management. Smart, cost-effective forest management requires a good understanding of what actions we should take, in specific locations, to create our future forests.Howard Hallman and Brad Piehl are members of the Forest Health Task Force. The task force meets today from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Frisco Community Building located at 3rd and Granite.
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