When will Colorado be hit by another devastating wildfire? No one knows for sure—but we do know that the probability is high due to our naturally dry climate, a summer weather forecast of potential drought conditions, and the tinderbox effects of ubiquitous pine beetle kill. Here's what to expect—and how to make sure you're ready for the heat.
Fighting Fire...With Fire
Some think setting controlled blazes is a reliable and legitimate land management practice; others believe it's too risky. Both sides weigh in.
On an unseasonably warm day in mid-March, the sky above U.S. 40 between Fraser and Winter Park is gray and hazy. Flanking the road in the fields and woods, half a dozen thick plumes of smoke rise rather alarmingly from the brush. But these aren't necessarily cause for concern; most likely, they're controlled burns.
Colorado's firefighters bring 98 percent of wildfires under control before they span 10 acres. Our continuous suppression of naturally occurring wildfire, however, actually thwarts a healthy ecological cycle and builds up ground fuel such as fallen trees and needles. Fire officials use prescribed, or controlled, burns to consume as much fuel as possible and minimize the likelihood of a cataclysmic incident. Not everyone agrees with the strategy, because even a controlled burn can run amok—especially in Colorado's exceedingly dry, unpredictable climate. The two schools of thought:
Expert Accountability Fire pros initiate monitored and regulated burning based on the most ideal weather and wind conditions.
Fuel Reduction Lodgepole pines naturally burn every 80 to 100 years; most of Colorado's mature lodgepole forests are overdue to burn because of constant fire suppression, and beetle-kill deadwood is exacerbating the risk to potentially catastrophic levels.
Forest Health Fires promote forest regeneration, which creates healthier trees and keeps ecosystems on a more natural renewal cycle.
A Record of Success Officials prescribe hundreds of burns every year that rarely blow out of control.
Unpredictable Conditions Even meticulous planning doesn't always trump the unexpected weather and wind that can rapidly inflate a fire's scope.
Eco-Damage Fires of any kind can contaminate water sources, destroy habitats, release carbon, and stress vegetation that serves as feed for ranch animals.
Potential Loss The chances may be small, but a single escaped blaze can cause tragedy and millions of dollars in damage. Exhibit A: the Los Alamos fires in New Mexico, where hundreds of homes burned in 2000 after the National Park Service set a series of controlled burns that they couldn't contain.
Undecided. "Fire is a controversial topic, whether it's prescribed or wild," says Steve Segin of the U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. "We've got a fire-adapted ecosystem, and if controlled burning is used with science and policies, and the procedures are followed, it can be very effective. But over the last five years, our tactics have changed, largely because of the number of people moving into urban interface," where homes meet forest.