Hard lessons learned though wildfire
WOODLAND PARK – When the Hayman fire blackened 138,114 acres and destroyed 599 structures in 2002, it left behind more than smoldering tree trunks and charred earth.Colorado’s largest recorded fire racked up a $42 million firefighting tab and a $75 million bill for water treatment, evacuation costs and rehabilitation projects.It also destroyed $23.7 million in property, causing a $238,000-a-year property tax loss in four counties: Teller, Douglas, Park and Jefferson. The heaviest loss was in Teller: $13.7 million in property lost, for a tax cut of $127,351.In addition, sediment washed down from barren mountains cut storage capacity in reservoirs and ponds by half.Although wildflowers peek through dirt and aspens flourish next to scorched tree trunks, scientists predict the Pike National Forest won’t regain its pre-Hayman lushness for six centuries.That assumes all goes as planned.The region is in the midst of one of the driest seasons on record, and foresters hope many of the 188,000 ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings planted since 2003 survive before another fire wipes them out.The Hayman dealt hard lessons, some leading to action:- Federal firefighting spending has risen from $1.38 billion in 2002 to $1.86 billion this year.- The Colorado General Assembly this year established a $3.25 million wildfire preparedness fund to ensure that 10 fire trucks bought under Gov. Bill Owens’ 2002 order are staffed and ready.- The Colorado Forest Service boosted its military surplus fire truck fleet to 138 from 133, and most have been fitted with better pumps and foam applicators. The state also added an air tanker.- The state built a database of city, county, fire district, emergency medical and search and rescue resources to improve responses and orchestrated a series of mutual aid agreements among agencies.
– Agencies now train and exercise by region. “It makes everybody that much more prepared. You’re working with your partners,” said Barbara Kirkmeyer, acting executive director of the Department of Local Affairs.- Millions in federal homeland security dollars have been pumped into equipping and training rural departments.Some steps to prevent another Hayman and to rejuvenate the forest will span generations.A Forest Service tree-thinning program targets a quarter- to half-mile buffer zone abutting populated areas, Pike National Forest District Ranger Brent Botts said.Officials have set up firewood-cutting areas where they cut trees and let residents with permits retrieve firewood.One thinned site is north of Woodland Park. “If a fire goes through here, there’s no way for it to go up into the canopy,” Botts said.But in Teller County, 61 percent of forest lands are in private hands, and in some subdivisions in or near the buffer zone, few homeowners have created “defensible space.”Ridgewood, a 90-home subdivision north of Woodland Park, was evacuated but escaped Hayman unscathed.There, Jean Rodeck can be found raking.A retired National Park Service worker, Rodeck heeded Colorado foresters’ advice to reduce fuels and paid $8,000 to get the work done.”I removed 400 trees,” she said. “Then we just did a lot of raking and removed a lot of underbrush and did it to the specifications set out in all the multitudinous publications available to landowners.”The biggest and longest undertaking will be restoring the Hayman burn site, which serves as a giant laboratory for several studies and as a destination for international delegations researching reforestation.
“People from all over are looking at what we’ve done, because the scale is what makes it so different than other fires, the vastness of it,” said Barb Timmock, Forest Service public affairs officer.One project discerned which mulching and stabilizing methods work best. Researchers also found the Hayman’s enormity and severity exceeded the West’s worst documentable fire year, 1631, judging from tree-trunk fire scars.”Even though there had been big fires over the last three to five centuries, we have zero evidence that any fire was nearly as severe as Hayman,” said Merrill Kaufmann, a retired Forest Service scientist who’s overseeing several Hayman research projects. “We can’t find anyplace where there are not any surviving trees. In Hayman, fire killed them all” in some places.That’s no surprise considering the trend. In 1960, 103,387 fires burned 4.5 million acres, while last year, 66,552 fires scorched 8.7 million acres – the most in 45 years.Rose Davis, with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said fire is nature’s way to rejuvenate forests. But more people living in or near forests has led to greater suppression efforts, which have allowed fuels to build up.That means hotter, bigger fires.Regrowing the trees, some as old as 500 years, is tricky.First, the Forest Service scattered short-term groundcover seeds to secure soils until native vegetation took hold.Kaufmann said ponderosa pine, the dominant tree in the Hayman area, has small but heavy seeds, which scatter naturally by only a quarter mile. To advance beyond that, new trees need to be grown to cast off more seeds.”It may take 15 to 30 years for new seeds to grow to get the next quarter-mile,” Kaufmann said. “In 100 years’ time, only a small portion of that whole forest landscape might get reforested naturally. If it takes 500 years to get a 500-year-old tree, we might be looking at six centuries to establish the old-growth landscape.”To help Mother Nature, the Forest Service began planting trees in 2003 and completed a 5,000-acre swatch this year.Seedlings, some of which die, must be planted during a tenuous two-week window in March to “get a drink” from snowpack and snowmelt before starting to put down roots, Botts said.
The first two years, the 2-inch trees don’t grow above ground. They then spurt by 2 to 3 inches a year until they reach about 3 feet – when they grow a foot a year. At 20, they slow down again.At $2 per seedling, it’s not cheap. The Forest Service will do what it can; officials hope to plant 1,000 to 2,000 acres per year.”We have no intention to replant the entire area that burned,” Botts said. The area’s edges will regenerate naturally, and aspens, which pop out after fires, are flourishing.Botts said only 65,000 of the 138,000 acres burned were damaged moderately or severely, requiring help. Of that, 20,000 acres are rocky outcroppings and 20,000 are privately owned.Kaufmann is confident the scar will recover.”We know we can get there from here,” he said. “The techniques and tools are all sitting right in front of us. But time is the biggest healer.”Unfortunately, the cure isn’t just reforestation. A recently completed study spurred by the Hayman found that 1.5 million forested acres on the Front Range need fire-risk mitigation and other treatment to prevent fire. Cost: $640 million over 40 years, and current funding leaves a $360 million shortfall.”The primary legacy out of Hayman is that fires now can be so enormous that the long-term ecological cost is huge, the threat to human life and property is huge,” he said. “These consequences are so enormous that we don’t dare ignore them but do our deadlevel best to try to solve these problems, so we don’t have another one.”Locally, conditions are ripe.The Colorado Springs area has received less rainfall this year than in 2002, and Colorado State University reported the second driest April and May in 118 years.The Front Range’s May fire index, which measures drought and fuel conditions, stood at the 95th percentile, 5 points higher than in 2002, the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood reports.”We’ve been lucky,” said the center’s fire information officer, Scott Woods, “that we haven’t had more starts.”
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