‘We have chosen to move into the forest where the fire lives’ | SummitDaily.com

‘We have chosen to move into the forest where the fire lives’

Larry Sawyer
Special to the Daily

For about the last four years as a Summit County resident and a member of the Frisco Town Council, I have been following the wildfire conversation. Not as a student but as someone who does occasionally attend Wildfire Council and Forest Health Task Force meetings. I do pay attention to what I hear and especially to briefings given to the town council by the U.S. Forest Service. I read with interest the column “More Forest Service Obfuscation” (by Howard Brown, March 27) and concluded we need to understand a few things before we make a judgment about why the Forest Service is clear-cutting 277 acres on Gold Hill.

First is a paraphrasing of a statement made by Dan Schroeder, a gentleman from the Colorado State University Forestry Extension Service who thinks and talks a lot about wildfire. I think he said it like this: “The fire lives in the forest and we have chosen to move into the forest where the fire lives.” Because we chose not to harvest the trees in Summit County in the 1980s, Mother Nature is harvesting them for us. She seems to do it in a two-step fashion: Beetles kill the trees and fire reduces them to carbon. Mother Nature has been prepping Summit County for over five years for a massive fire. Dead lodgepole pines have shed their needles and fallen over. Sun has reached the forest floor and grass and brush have thrived, providing kindling for the dead trees lying in a crossed fashion and creating the constituents for a perfect camp fire. I think I got that right.

Second, is the size of our county. A Forest Service manager showed the Frisco Town Council a map of Summit. The county comprises about 608 square miles, which translates into about 389,000 acres. Humans inhabit about 15 percent of the county, or 58,000 acres. The other 85 percent is woods, swamps and lakes and mountain terrain. We are concerned about the woods. As of today that portion which is designated woods is going to burn. There is neither the means nor the desire to extinguish a fire once it starts. The dead trees, brush and grasses need to go and Mother Nature needs to begin anew. The Forest Service will not put a fire crew into danger, where if the winds change, there is no way to run because of downed trees. If we cannot fight the fire in the forest, we can try to divert it from something we value, or we can clear-cut buffers around the 15 percent of the county humans inhabit.

Over the last five years buffers (clear-cuts) have been created around Summit’s watersheds, hospital, schools, towns, outlying communities and recreational areas. The buffers, like all cordon sanitaires, are inadequate. When the fire comes, if the wind is moderate and the humidity is high, the buffers may hold. If the winds are high, the humidity is low and the sun is hot, all bets are off. The Colorado Springs fire and the Poudre River fire have changed the knowledge base about how a wildfire will act in Summit. The incredible fuel loads on the forest floor coupled with our moving into the forest is a concoction leading to real disaster.

Three, there are limits to what we can really do to prepare. We can plan, which is what Ready Set Go is all about. You grab the good stuff and run. Preparedness is the fodder for conversation by the Wild Fire Council and the Forest Health Task Force, which leads to plans that by the nature of wildfire are limited. We can trim the dead trees out of our communities (Frisco removed around 6,000 trees) and build defensive perimeters around our homes. But after all is said and done, it really depends on how fast the wind is blowing, from what direction and what is the humidity level. I believe the county has eight fire trucks, so if the fire is close to your home, and your home is on a road which has two access points and you’re within 75 yards of a fire hydrant, and they are not busy saving someone else’s home, they may be able to save yours.

In the Gold Hill conversation, it became a choice between saving a pretty trail versus making the buffer deeper between homes and the forest. The forest is going to burn and regenerate, the homes are the tangible assets of the people who live there. The Forest Service clear-cut is doing the best with what little they have to protect us.

This will be my third trip through the aftermath of Mother Nature deciding a tree population had matured and needs harvesting. I worked the Dutch elm disease and the oak wilt infestations in Minnesota and Iowa. In both cases the trees had matured to the point they could no longer fight off infection, the difference being once the trees died they were harvested by chain saw, rather than fire. We need to be prepared to fight to defend the 15 percent that we inhabit, but more important we need to start thinking about replanting the other 85 percent of Summit with trees so that when they mature they will be more diverse, hardy and available. This replanting is not for us but for the next generations. Hopefully, this time we will not let the precepts of Dr. Seuss interfere with realistic forest management practices.

Larry Sawyer lives in Frisco.

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