Are forestry policies replacing one hazard with another?
Ryan Summerlin March 10, 2013
When Tom and Sharon Scanlan began building their home in the Kuehster Road community southwest of Denver six years ago, they could see mountainsides scarred by the state’s most massive wildfire ever – the 2002 Hayman fire.
“We looked at it every single day,” Tom Scanlan says.
Those charred mountainsides helped inspire the couple to build their mountain home out of inflammable insulated concrete, bury their propane tank far from the house and cut scores of trees to create defensible spaces around the house and barn.
“We often had guys come up and talk to us from the state tree forestry,” Tom Scanlan says. “We understood the risks and we all did … more than was recommended.”
But when the Lower North Fork fire roared into their neighborhood in March, the Scanlans escaped only minutes ahead of the flames that left their home a charred ruin.
“There was no mitigation that could possibly be done to stop what happened here,” Tom Scanlan says.
Some fire scientist might dispute that, but it’s clear that Colorado forests burn hotter, faster and more destructively.
The fire that destroyed the Scanlans’ home, and the one that scarred the mountains they looked at while building it, bookend a decade of exploding wildfire in Colorado and a booming population at risk.
The Lower North Fork fire also highlights the challenge of Colorado’s red zone – where overgrown and unhealthy forests threaten to overrun homes with wildfires. And mitigation efforts to prevent catastrophic megafires like the Hayman, forest managers hope to treat forests with thinning and prescribed burning.
But even planned fires in these heavily fueled and tinder-dry forests have the potential to jump their boundaries, like the controlled burn that grew into the deadly Lower North Fork fire.
A 2008 Statewide Forest Resource Assessment shows more than 24 million acres of Colorado’s forested lands are now overgrown and unhealthy due to fire suppression or other land management practices, with 6.8 million acres desperately in need of treatment to improve their resiliency to fire, insects and disease.
While mechanical thinning and prescribed fire remain important tools, says Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, the expectations of how much impact they could have was inflated after the Hayman fire and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
“There’s so much forest that needs to be treated in Colorado,” Segin says. “We’re never going to be able to catch up. We’ll never be able to make a dent.”
Prescribed burns require permits from state air-quality officials, must meet strict weather, fuel moisture and staffing conditions, and often face resistance from nearby residents. So, although more than 400 proposed burns received permits last year, those projects touched only a fraction of the fuel load that needs to be incinerated.
Burns that spread out of control increase resistance from the public. In the wake of the Lower North Fork fire, which killed three people, Gov. John Hickenlooper put a moratorium on prescribed burns in the state until an investigation of the Colorado Forest Service’s burn on the Denver Water Board land was completed. Prescribed fires from Colorado Springs to Boulder were cancelled.
Fires on cut or chipped wood don’t burn the way natural wildfires do.
When Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin arrived at the Lower North Fork fire, the fire was actually burning downhill, rather than up. The flames were largely on “masticated” fuels – timber that had been cut down, chipped into a course mulch and spread out to dry until an appropriate time to burn it.
“I had never seen a ground fire running through masticated fuels like that. It looked like just a 4-inch bed of charcoal burning everywhere. The fire was burning downhill into native fuels.”
Some foresters and fire managers worry that incomplete mitigations, particularly those that leave fuel on the ground waiting for a prescribed burn that may never come, can increase the fire hazard.
During the Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder in September 2010, hundreds of stacks of wood from fuel treatments – jack piles – burned hot and launched thousands of embers. Some witnesses disputed it, but in the preliminary Fourmile Canyon fire report released last fall, investigators reported that fire mitigation and fuel treatments did little good.
That may be because of the abundance of fuel left behind by treatments, or due to the fact that the jigsaw puzzle of private and public lands allowed only treatments on so small a scale that the exploding wildfire could easily overrun them.
“The Lower North Fork and the Fourmile taught us about the need to take care of the slash and the ground fuels,” says Tony Cheng, director of Front Range Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project at Colorado State University. “The ground fuels are the ones that make the fires burn hotter and into the tree crowns. How do we deal with all these? Are we replacing one hazard with another hazard?”
I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS, collaborating with the Summit Daily and other Colorado news organizations to cover important issues. Learn more at iNewsNetwork.org.