Playing with fire: How a history of mining, suppression and climate change has fueled a new generation of wildfires
One moment, the forest is calm.
Tree branches sway gently back and forth in the early afternoon wind as heat from the summer sun drenches the crown and understory growing below. It’s been hot, and over the past few months, the moisture from the winter snowfall has run its course and the morning dew condensed on the grass has dissipated on the forest floor.
All of a sudden, there’s a spark. An ember drifts into a bed of fallen pine needles that have been piling up for decades, maybe centuries, under a clutter of downed trees and brush.
The fire will start small, spitting out wisps of black smoke and slowly singeing the ground around it. But the surrounding area is a seemingly endless supply of fuel and untapped energy that could erupt at any moment into one of the most devastating forces on earth, capable of tearing through millions of acres of forested land — threatening homes, infrastructure and human lives — in a brilliant and terrifying display of destruction.
Last year, more than 50,000 wildfires in the United States burned nearly 5 million acres of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But as the length of the fire season continues to grow, along with an unsettling trend of “megafires” emerging in places like California and Australia, fire officials and individuals living in the wildland-urban interface could be facing a new normal.
The gold rush and Western expansion
Wildfires are a natural and healthy part of the ecosystem that help to break down dead foliage into nutrients for the soil, promote age and species diversity in forests, and reduce fuel loading.
The value of fires was evident to Native Americans long before European-American settlers made their way out West in search of gold. In Colorado, the Ute Tribe used to purposefully burn areas to help promote ecological health and provide horses, bison and other game with better pastures.
July 25: Playing with fire
Aug. 1: Anatomy of a wildfire
Aug. 8: On the front lines
Aug. 15: The future of wildfires
“There is a lot of historical evidence, and also contemporary evidence and observation of Native Americans using fire in a number of different ways,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Historian Lincoln Bramwell, Ph.D. “It was used to clear off and burn forests in the fall to keep them open and allow more game animals to come in that were useful for their survival. … In different areas, fire was used with planting, basically to fertilize fields and inject more nitrogen into the soil in between planting seasons.
“There are tons of uses that did not resemble gigantic fires that ripped across the landscape. They did a lot of controlled uses. They didn’t want to destroy those resources; they just wanted to enhance how well they performed.”
But those uses were largely ignored by European Americans who settled out West and determined that lumber was far too valuable of a resource to let burn — let alone burn on purpose.
Prospectors arrived in the Summit County area in 1859, a decade after the California gold rush sent streams of settlers out West and just after the Pike’s Peak gold rush brought more than 100,000 people to Colorado in search of wealth.
By 1860, the area was littered with sawmills to help support mining efforts. Miners used wood for almost everything, and the deforestation in the area was considerable.
“They needed lumber for buildings, roads, bridges, fuel, support for the mines … you name it,” said local author and historian Sandra Mather, Ph.D. “They stripped it and stripped it because they needed the wood.”
In addition to using lumber to build and heat their homes, cook meals, build infrastructure and other uses, early settlers also clearcut entire mountainsides for hydraulic mining operations, blasting extremely high-pressure jets of water onto the slopes to run sediment and rock material — and hopefully gold — into sluice boxes down at the bottom.
The impacts of early logging and mining operations is clearly evident today. As a result of clear cutting and wildfires 100 to 150 years ago, local forests all returned in relative unison. That means there is a lack of age and size diversity in the forests, along with a lack of species diversity as lodgepole pine trees took over.
The current day contiguous landscape made up of older trees is potentially troublesome for forest health and fire management efforts.
“There were large-scale logging operations going on in Summit County,” former Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino said. “But it lead to the wiping out of the forest diversity and allowed for lodgepole to regenerate more plentifully. Now it’s come back to bite us.
“We ended up with a forest that was not as diverse. There used to be a mosaic of different species of trees: Douglas fir, blue spruce, aspen, cottonwood. But lodgepole thrives on trauma to the forests, whether it’s fire, bugs or logging operations. Within a few years, it came back, all with the same age group of trees, which makes the forest vulnerable.”
In a healthy forest, the diversity of age, size and species help to act as buffers to prevent the wide-ranging and unchecked spread of wildfire and insect infestations.
“If you think about it, they’re kind of like speed bumps,” said Michael Battaglia, Ph.D., a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. “If you have all trees of all the same size with dense forest across an entire mountain, it’s pretty easy for a fire to get up and just carry. But if you have trees of different heights — or an open-ended forest because there’s a meadow, or an aspen grove or spruce or fir forest intermixed — you would have a lot of speed bumps that can help break up that powerful movement of wildfires. …
“That’s one of the issues we’re dealing with. Now we don’t have any of those speed bumps anymore.”
A history of suppression
A lack of diversity isn’t the only issue facing modern forests in Summit County and around the country. Another major problem is the county’s history of wildfire suppression.
In the early 20th century, when the federal government took on a more active role in land management, the general consensus scientifically, economically and culturally was that fire was wasteful and dangerous.
“During that time — the late 19th century and the early 20th century — Americans still had a really big dependence on wood,” Bramwell said. “From that perspective, seeing a wildfire burn down a mature forest seemed like such a waste, particularly for timber companies who saw it as a loss of capital resources. It was literally draining the bank.”
The nation’s logging industry started in the Northeast and, once forests in the area we no longer profitable, moved to the Great Lakes and eventually down South. But once a forest was used up, it was abandoned, and the federal government began taking conservation steps to address companies’ “cut and run” strategies before they made their way to the next big patches of virgin forest in the Pacific Northwest and California.
Forestry science in the early 20th century hadn’t caught up to the idea that natural fires were helpful to the environment. And in 1910, one of the most destructive fires in the country’s history was more than enough to shape public and official perceptions on the matter.
The Great Fire of 1910 burned more than 3 million acres of timberland in northern Idaho and western Montana over the course of two days. Eighty-six people died in the blaze, primarily firefighters on the front lines, and entire towns were lost.
“It really shocked the nation into action,” Bramwell said. “At that time, the Forest Service was really small, a couple thousand employees across the country. They didn’t have the resources to handle fires. Congress literally doubled the agency’s budget the next year and said, ‘You need to fight fires.’”
The fire served as the foundational experience to influence fire management practices for the next 50 years and in 1935 became an official national strategy as part of the 10 a.m. policy, which required fire agencies to try to suppress any forest fires by 10 a.m. the day after ignition.
Officials have been rethinking total suppression strategies for years. The National Park Service began allowing backcountry fires to burn in 1968, and the Forest Service adopted a similar stance in 1978, according to Bramwell.
But decades of suppression have left many forests in danger of more extreme fire conditions.
“We’ve become very adverse to fire,” said Dan Schroder, Summit County’s Colorado State University Extension director. “Fuel loading is a matter of branches and dry, flammable material in the forested ecosystems. Fire would have naturally burned off a lot of that flammable vegetation. But because of (suppression policies), we now have an overstocked fuel load in our forests across the nation.
“Today, when a wildfire occurs, it’s typically more intense and could be more severe and long lasting. And then we may be dealing with deeper environmental consequences.”
Climate also has played a major role in how we view fire danger today.
Between 1895 and 1900, the average temperature in Colorado was just over 44 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. From 2015-2019, the state averaged 47 degrees.
While that might not seem significant, experts say the rise in temperature has had dramatic effects on forest health.
“There’s a couple things we’re seeing, and that we expect to get worse,” Battaglia said. “We know Colorado has warmed quite a bit over the last century, and that has had effects west-wide.”
Battaglia said that historically colder winters helped to regulate insect populations like beetles that impact tree and wider forest health. But insects are able to survive warmer winters, and with nothing else to cull the population, more trees are being affected.
Warmer weather also means earlier snowmelt along with more widespread cycles of longer and hotter droughts.
“If you have snow, and it melts slowly, it can last into the summer,” Battaglia said. “But if it’s rain, it just runs off, oftentimes, and you don’t have that reserve. It stresses your plants, and fuels dry out much quicker. … There’s a lot more hot days, and when you combine that with a drought, it’s not a happy thing for a tree.”
It also means a constantly growing wildfire season.
In Summit County, wildfires historically occurred deep into the summer months, but blazes have become more commonplace as early as March and as late as October, according to Berino.
“Climate change has affected the wildfire season, period,” Berino said. “In Summit County, we used to be a joke with firefighters and the Forest Service because we’d get fires that wouldn’t do anything. But in my career, just over the last 40 years, we’re starting to see more aggressive fires up here.”
Summit County officials and fire districts, along with the Forest Service and others, have been working over recent years to address all of these issues. But between longer fire seasons, dryer and more dense fuel loads, and a lack of diversity in surrounding forests, wildfires are becoming more dangerous.
“Climate change and years of suppression — right or wrong — has lead to a huge fuel load in the forest, and an environment that’s hotter and dryer,” Berino said. “We never heard the term megafire until this last decade. Now it’s common language.
“We don’t have the conditions that California has with the Santa Ana winds. But could we have a megafire? Yes. I hope not. We have well-trained people and some good defensive space. But in the right place in the right time, and if the conditions are right, we could certainly have one.”
Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part series about wildfires. Part two publishes Aug. 1.
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