Colorado’s wildfire problem

Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012
Waldo Canyon Fire, June 26, 2012, the day hundreds of homes burned in Colorado Springs. Credit: Keystoneridin

Colorado has become a focal point for wildfire. Last year the Black Forest Fire destroyed 486 homes and killed two people near Colorado Springs. The year before on the opposite side of the city, the Waldo Canyon fire burned 347 homes and also killed two people. Since 2000, 1,769 homes have been destroyed by wildfires in the state and 8 residents and 12 firefighters have died.

Yet, in spite of their recent history, Colorado has a primitive and disorganized system for preventing, mitigating, responding to and suppressing wildfires. Some politicians, including state senators Steve King and Ellen Roberts, have been active in attempting to fix some of the problems by speaking out and introducing legislation. Senator King has gone over the top at least once in a rant about how “absentee landowners” are managing federal lands, but he has also recently proposed legislation that would provide funds for firefighting helicopters and an air tanker.

Senator Roberts, who was a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park for four years after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in environmental policy, has also introduced legislation related to wildland fire. One bill would create an information and resource center, while the other concerns the payment of death benefits for seasonal wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty.

None of these proposals, which may or may not become reality, will fix Colorado’s primitive approach to wildfire — their inability to attack new fires with prompt, overwhelming force has to be addressed — but at least some leaders in the state are beginning to take small, positive steps.

On January 4 Senator Roberts published the following on her website:

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“Colorado’s Future is Burning as We Fiddle

Legislative session 2014 is less than two weeks away and it’ll be an interesting time in the Colorado Senate. The recalls and resignation of 3 Democratic senators since we adjourned in May mean a nearly 10% turnover in a nonelection year. Election season 2014 looms on the horizon, too, so we’ll have quite the mix of personalities, issues and politics this session.

Yet, no matter the upheavals and distractions, we must focus on the threat, no, make that the promise, of continued catastrophic wildfires and the concentrated effort needed to improve forest health, statewide. This may be assisted partly by legislation, but much more needs to be done outside that avenue.

What I know I won’t be supporting is the governor’s recent suggestion, as reported in the Durango Herald, that we rely on farmers and ranchers as our first line of defense in fighting wildfires. This may have been an off-the-cuff idea expressed by the governor, but, when I read it, I wondered whether to laugh or cry.

Fighting catastrophic wildfires is not like extinguishing a ringed campfire. We need professional wildfire fighters, assisted by local structure firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders. Facing a wildfire bearing down on them, farmers and ranchers are rightly preoccupied with moving livestock and protecting family and other precious assets. The suggestion that relying on the country cousins to save burning metropolitan suburbs, like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, should also be distressing to residents of the Front Range.

We may not be able to fund a state-owned air fleet right away, but we must have a reliable emergency radio communications system and a steady, reliable supply of single engine air tankers, larger capacity planes and nimble, speedy helicopter operations. We can at least forcefully advance a western states’ regional air fleet that moves with the shifting fire dangers hitting states at different times of the fire season. We need to see that local, state and federal firefighters have ample ground resources, too.

We can expand and help fund education on home mitigation efforts and the need to do prescribed burns, not dictated by air regulations to occur only in windy times to disperse the smoke, but when they can be completed safely. We must do a better job of protecting our state’s watersheds and soils from the devastation caused by wildfires and this’ll require getting into our forests to responsibly thin out the gnarled and diseased trees. There’s no better exhibit of the terrible condition of Colorado’s forests than driving over Wolf Creek Pass, immediately east of my district.

Catastrophic wildfires destroy more than homes, possessions, and happy memories. Colorado has lost lives in these fires each year recently and neighboring Arizona suffered the immeasurable loss of 19 wildfire fighters last summer.

The federal government owns 68% of Colorado’s forests. The local federal foresters aren’t to blame for out of touch Washington, D.C., policies that have led to the forest devastation and the loss of the timber industry previously here. Yet, it’s impossible to address Colorado’s problems without demanding better stewardship from the federal landowner. This is where the governor should seek responsible, meaningful assistance and I’ll be right there to help him.

It is infuriating and ironic that the U.S. Forest Service is considering closing public restrooms, that is, pit toilets, along the highways of Southwestern Colorado as the agency “no longer has the resources to properly maintain” the toilets. If the agency can’t pay for maintaining a few pit toilets, can we really expect them to do better with maintaining our forests? The cost of fighting fires has decimated the most basic budget items, and yet, the federal government appears content to repeat the same insanity of reacting to catastrophe instead of getting ahead of it with restorative forest health practices.

There is a better way, but, apparently, the state of Colorado, and its governor, must lead the way as the feds cannot, or, will not. If what Governor Hickenlooper wants to focus on this legislative session is jobs for our state, trust me, job opportunities abound and public safety will improve, if we take this challenge seriously and with dedicated focus.

Colorado’s present, and future, demands it from us.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

9 thoughts on “Colorado’s wildfire problem”

  1. For those interested in Colorado issues, and preparedness and response in general, check out Emergency Management Magazine (online) , 1/27/14. “How Boulder, Colo., Prepared for ‘Biblical’ Rainfall”.

  2. Quoting the Senator, “…but we must have a reliable emergency radio communications system…”

    How much money has the Federal Government pumped into Colorado for interoperability since 9-11?

  3. Sen. Roberts has soon interesting ideas yet she need not blast the Governor so harshly on working with farmers and ranchers in fighting wildland fires. I’ve worked with numerous groups of these folks on fires in Montana and the vast majority do have equipment and experience to effectively work wildland fires. The obviously their need to protect cattle and farm equipment is their first priority, however, they are really concerned about their grazing lands so they do make a good effort to reduce loss of their range. Granted, these folks could use more training and encouragement to work with professional wildland fire fighters. That is where local volunteer fire fighters, especially the local fire chief can talk with ranchers about establishing a closer working relationship with people who arrive to give them a hand. I believe we need to do more work along these lines. Yes, professionals are better, yet locals need to be integrated into the suppression structure as a means to build a more effective fire suppression program….

  4. Colorado, as a location, as a geographic area, as a series of ecological systems, does not have a wildfire problem – much of its forest types (and other natural lands) are made to burn, Lodgepole especially – it is an obligate stand-replacement species.

    The problem Colorado does have, is one of too many people building too many houses in the wrong places and expecting world record wildfire and structure protection within an urban time frame. Get fire and home insurance, build with fire-resistant materials, thin your trees, do more rx burns, and accept the fact that a home in a forest is really no different than a tree or shrub in a forest – they’re all made of wood and wood burns. Fire is always a “when” and never an “if”.

    1. James,

      Well-said. As regards homes, though, I’d make the point that in some ways they are different from trees in that they, like ships in the ocean, are knowingly placed in an environment where harmful forces are inevitable. Like seaworthy ships, we also know how to build homes and landscape defensible space around them to greatly minimize the risk to them of fire. A choice has been made in most parts of the west, CO included, to so far not act responsibly in this regard and require “fire-worthy” construction.

      A state air force is a great way to create a few more state jobs and grab a few headlines, but realistically is going to do nothing to keep the forests there from burning. And as you note many of the forests there need to burn, and for that matter some species such as aspen have been hurt by a relative lack of fire in the recent past.

      Not everyone is meant to go to sea on a seaworthy vessel, and assuming the responsibility of a fire-worthy home and living space may not be for everyone, either. Societally, I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s long-term interests to try to accommodate people who want to live in an area with a known hazard without responsibly addressing their exposure to that hazard.

      1. I should have also noted Colorado’s “avalanche problem,” which is also an inevitable result of natural forces. People aren’t allowed to build willy-nilly in slide paths in CO. There is some limited avy mitigation, in particular to keep roads clear and reasonably safe, and obviously by ski areas. But, the state has no extensive avy control air force and needs none. There are very destructive slides every year and the state and its ecology is doing just fine. It’s great to live up high where there’s lots of snow, and can be quite safe, but homeowners and developers are responsible for making it safe.

  5. I would like to offer an opinion , I live in MN. My daughter used to work at Blaine airport at Anoka Flight Training , at that time they had one of four fire fighting planes, in North America, ( It’s a really cool plane ) I understand that they are very expensive, but now the Colorado has a large income from Marijuana, sorry I don’t smoke that stuff I did back in the 1960’s I am 61 years young, I would say That the State should invest some of that money to keep it’s people and wildlife safe before anything else. I plan on moving to Colorado Springs by this fall , I love it, it is one of the most Beautiful places on Earth . And I would love to see it not all burn up before I get there. Thank you .

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