Fire in the mountains: The role of fire and humans in a healthy forest
Friends of the Dillon Ranger District’s (FDRD) service projects focus on the four greatest threats to our national forest lands: fires and fuels, invasive species (including plants), unmanaged recreation, and loss of open space. Twenty five volunteers came to our Fire Mitigation Day in August. They cleared fuels on approximately one acre, generating 45 slash piles. Many other local organizations and neighborhood efforts sponsor fuels reduction and fire mitigation programs. These efforts help decrease the risk of fire in the wildland urban interface throughout Summit County.Fire has been an essential, natural process in a healthy forest ecosystem. It has helped shape our wildlands for thousands of years, and is important for the survival of many plants and animals. Historically, these “high frequency, low intensity” burns create nutrient-rich soils, providing a fertile seedbed for plants to grow. They reduce fuel loads and the accumulation of vegetation that can inhibit plant growth, creating openings that allow new vegetation to grow. These fires burn intensely in some areas, cooler in others, and leave scattered unburned areas, thus creating a variety, or mosaic, of habitats for plants and animals. This biodiversity promotes a healthier forest. Additionally, some plants (and animals) have adapted to fire, and therefore, are the first species to grow back (or return) after one. Some of the lodgepole pine tree’s cones, called serotinous cones, open up with a fire’s heat, allowing for seed dispersal. Aspens are able to reproduce from their root systems after a fire.Social and cultural approaches to wildland fire over the past century have focused on preventing and suppressing all wildland fire. This has caused an increase in fuels in our national forest, leading to catastrophic, or “low frequency, high intensity” fires. These fires burn hotter, last longer, and spread faster. They become difficult to manage and threaten plant and animal life. After really hot fires, the soil becomes sterilized many inches down, resulting in longer recovery time and increased erosion. Ultimately, they decrease forest health. Additionally, the growth of the wildland-urban interface in the last 50 years means that lives and homes are at stake if a forest catches fire. In our community, state, and region, we are experiencing the combined effects of the past century of fire suppression, the recent drought, pine beetle infestation, and increased development in the wildland urban interface. Our recent fire seasons have resulted in public awareness of risks and increased emphasis on solutions. These include a federal initiative to restore forest health and improve firefighting capabilities, and growing interest among forest dwellers in learning how to live safely and respond to emergencies. While fire itself can be important in fire-adapted ecosystems, active forest management is essential to restore and maintain healthy forests and to reduce the risk of wildfire to forests and communities. In an ongoing partnership effort, five federal agencies responsible for land management issues – Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs – have developed uniform policies addressing wildland firefighting, hazard fuels reduction, cooperative prevention and education. The underlying issue is that so many of our fire-dependent ecosystems have become overgrown and unhealthy. The answer is to reduce fuels before the big fires break out, and then get fire back into the ecosystem when it’s safe. Treatments to reduce fuels and restore ecosystems involve various techniques, including thinning, prescribed burning, and clearing the forest of debris. Post-fire rehabilitation includes restoring burned habitat and landscapes, repairing damaged roads and rivers, replanting trees and preventing erosion.Locally, there are many ways to get involved in the fuels reduction and fire mitigation efforts in the county. Start by creating a defensible space surrounding your home, thereby decreasing the risk of fire to your property. For example, remove needles from roofs and rain gutters, remove “ladder fuels” from trees, prune tree limbs so the lowest is between 6 inches and 10 inches from the ground, remove dead or overhanging branches and slash, and store firewood away from structures. For more information on defensible space around your home, visit http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/NATRES/ 06302.html and http://www.firewise.org. Various local neighborhood efforts, including Ruby Ranch, have adopted initiatives and defensible space guidelines to mitigate risks of fire in the wildland urban interface in their area. Get involved with your neighborhood effort or start one in your neighborhood. Finally, several local agencies are developing a countywide fire mitigation effort and are creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The Forest Service and the Board of County Commissioners has approved this plan and meetings with the towns are in progress. Contact the Summit County Wildfire Mitigation Officer, Patti Maguire at (970) 513-4237, for a defensible space inspection and for more information on getting involved in (or starting) your neighborhood effort and in the countywide effort. Our increased awareness of our, and fire’s, role in a healthy forest ecosystem and our participation in local fuels reduction and fire mitigation programs will make a difference in the county’s efforts to improve our local forest health and reduce loss of life, property and natural resources. Guff Van Vooren is executive director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, and can be reached at (970) 389-6058, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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