Summit County’s forests are overly dense — that could mean megafires in our future

The Gore Range Trail in the Eagles Nest Wilderness near Silverthorne. Forests like the Wilderness can become oversaturated with trees and contribute to the frequency of megafires.
Hugh Carey /

Thanos, the antagonist in this year’s major blockbuster, “Avengers: Infinity War,” sets out to restore “balance” to the universe by attempting to wipe out half of all life. While federal and state forest services should never be confused with a genocidal maniac from a comic book, nor intend to wipe out half of all the trees, they still work toward bringing a certain balance to Colorado’s forests, a balance lost since the United States started treating any forest fire — even small ones — as a threat.

That was a large part of the presentation offered to members of the Summit County Forest Health Task Force on Wednesday afternoon. The task force is a group of volunteers, conservationists, forest rangers and government officials that meets once a month to discuss issues related to forest health. This month’s presentation warned of the dangers of unchecked forest growth.

Colorado is facing a busy forest fire season, what with the record-dry conditions in parts of the state, low snowpack and a decade’s worth of beetle-killed pine crumbling across the state. But another factor, caused by decades of well-intended forest mismanagement, has led to this moment.

Brad Piehl, who chairs the task force, showed a video of a TED Talk by Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service. During the talk, Hessburg spoke about the danger and increasing frequency of “megafires” — wildfires that grow to more than 100,000 acres.

While climate change is a heavy contributing factor, the way humans have managed forests for the past 100 years is a big part of the blame. In 1910, the country experienced the largest wildfire in its history. The “Big Burn” scorched nearly three million acres — the size of Connecticut — across eastern Washington and western Montana and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters.

Since that disaster, the country has taken a much more proactive approach to wildfires in its forests. Smaller wildfires that would usually burn off overgrowth and dead trees and create “patchy” spots that function as fire buffers between trees, thus preventing larger wildfires, are snuffed out before they can do their job. Human encroachment into the wild lands has also cleared away forests and pushed them into smaller, denser areas. That, Hessburg said, creates “powder kegs” all across the country.

Rural communities like Summit County have exploded in population growth due to their proximity to the forests.

“More than 60 percent of new homes are being built in this flammable, dangerous mess,” Hessburg said.

To keep those rural homes safe, smaller wildfires that once “cleansed” the area of dead brush are stamped out before they can do their job, and forests become dangerously dense. The density, combined with rising temperatures, also drove the mountain pine beetle outbreak that destroyed 3.4 million acres of Colorado forestland from 1996 to 2014. Tree diseases also move quicker in dense forests, and dead trees compound the fuel problem after they dry out and deteriorate.

To emulate smaller wildfires, fire departments and foresters around the country routinely conduct “prescribed burns” of small sections of forest when ambient conditions are safe enough that they won’t spread, or logging which emulates disturbances that give rise to new growth. Those measures are often opposed by members of the public who protest the smoke and the way they destroy parts of the scenery they come to live near.

Ryan McNertney, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said that foresters have evolved their methods to closely resemble natural “disturbances” in forestland that maintains the balance Mother Nature had always tried to keep, and not just an arbitrary excuse to cut down trees.

“For certain types of forest, we’re going to do more of a selective harvest of trees,” McNertney explained. “So, sometimes we’ll focus on larger diameter trees. If there’s good natural regeneration and we want to encourage the younger growth, we’ll remove the bigger, more mature and fuel-dense trees. In certain situations we want to keep the older, healthier trees that are more resistant to fire and disease, we’ll remove some of the weaker understory to reduce density and decrease fire intensity. That keeps fires as lower groundfires, versus fires that stand in place and grow due to heavy fuel loads and become megafires.”

McNertney added that this goes a long way toward creating those buffer “patches” between trees that prevent wildfires from spreading over hundreds of thousands of acres in the High Country.

“Ideally, the subalpine forest should have some fire or disturbance that would create a forest mosaic — some large forests, some small forests, some open land.”

The approach foresters like McNertney and local fire departments pursue to manage our forests work toward the shared goal of keeping people safe while keeping forests healthy, and restoring a ‘balance’ that humans interfered with. It also supports the message Hessburg ended his TED Talk with.

“Until we the owners of public lands make it our high priority to do something about the current situation, we’re going to experience many more losses due to megafires,” Hessburg said. “If we’re unsuccessful, where will you go to play when your favorite places are burned black? Where will you go to breathe deep and slow?”

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