Ask Eartha: Snow’s on the slopes, but wildfire still a present danger for High Country residents
October 31, 2013
As I look out my window in the morning, I anxiously await snow. Still all I see in the valley is tall, dry grass swaying in the breeze. Although we've had more moisture this year than last, is there still cause for wildfire concern?
— Aden, Breckenridge
Even after a fire is extinguished, smoke still bellows from the ashes. The effects and threats of wildfires are a real concern even this late in the season. In addition, the loss of homes and habitat, the high cost of fighting fires, and the environmental consequences from the use of fire dispersants and foam are major issues.
Last year was the second worst fire season on record. A total of 67,700 fires burned up 9.3 million acres in the United States. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 2,200 primary structures, including many homes, were incinerated.
Although fires play a vital role in nature, they often wipe out native habitat. Specific fire-control methods also affect local ecosystems. The Forest Service uses aerially applied fire retardant and foams to reduce a fire's intensity, slow the rate of spread, and decrease the risk to firefighters. The Forest Service tests these dispersants and foam prior to field use. Most retardants are 85 percent water, 10 percent fertilizer, and 5 percent of mixed ingredients (i.e. colorants, thickeners, corrosion inhibitors, stabilizers and bactericides). Foams consist of 99 percent water and 1 percent of wetting and foaming agents, corrosion inhibitors and dispersants.
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Despite the Forest Service complying with all regulations, retardants can negatively affect vegetation. The fertilizers in the retardants often burn plants. Further up the food chain, foraging animals may experience nitrate poisoning after consuming retardant-laden plants. The foams contain ammonia and phosphates or sulfate ions that can have lethal consequences on aquatic organisms. Severity is directly related to the volume of contamination.
Wildland firefighting is also extremely expensive. Between the rigs, man hours and the cost to fly dispersant over challenging burns, it's no wonder that the budget is often maxed out. The Forest Service's $600 million budget for the 2013 forest fire season was depleted by August, forcing the agency to transfer funds from other accounts.
We are now in what is considered the second wildfire season. Just last fall the Fern Lake Fire claimed 3,500 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park. The blaze started with an illegal campfire on Oct. 9, 2012. The smoke was still seen rising from the ashes as late as January.
There are many contributing factors to late-season wildfires. Compared to last year, we have experienced much more rainfall. But all of the high-quality moisture caused our meadow grasses and forest brush to grow. It's not too often that I complain about growing plants, but tall grasses equal a ton of potential flash fuel for wildfires.
Fortunately there are a few precautionary steps homeowners can take to lower the threat of wildfire and create a 'defensible space' around their home. Summit County's Wildfire Council exists to assist in this endeavor. The council is comprised of representatives from the Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, local fire protection districts, towns and citizen representatives from each of the four river basins. The council is working hard to educate Summit County residents on wildfire preparedness.
For more info and resources, visit the CSU Extension section of Summit County's website at http://www.co.summit.co.us/index.aspx?NID=416. You'll find contact information and plenty of resources including a link to "Living with the Threat of Wildfire: A Resource Guide for Property Owners in Summit County".
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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