The three largest wildfires in Colorado history all occurred in 2020—and that doesn’t even include the Mullen Fire, which started in Wyoming and jumped state lines. The amount of total territory it burned would have been enough to land in the Centennial State’s top five.
What was different about 2020 compared to other years? According to Colorado’s top forestry experts, it was a combination of factors. The 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan, which was released in October, lists increasing drought conditions caused by climate change and the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle.
But the massive burns were also the product of decades of aggressive fire suppression policies put in place by the federal government during the 19th century. Similar strategies were then carried out on a large scale by workers from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the middle of the 20th century.
One of the potential solutions for dealing with the current wildfire and climate crisis in the American West came from U.S. Representative Joe Neguse of Boulder. Along with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, he has pushed to create a Civilian Climate Corps that would help build a diverse workforce dedicated to management of natural ecosystems, including wildfire mitigation. “There’s an incredible amount of work to be done in terms of addressing resiliency opportunities, so that we can be better prepared for the fires of the future, knowing that they are going to be far more pervasive,” Neguse told 5280 about the potential creation of a Climate Corps.
President Joe Biden included $10 billion for Neguse and Wyden’s proposal, which draws inspiration from Roosevelt’s earlier Civilian Conservation Corps, in his American Jobs Plan. But there remains a small irony in the fact that the new Climate Corps would have to remedy problems created, in part, by the original Civilian Corps.
Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was created in 1933 as part of the New Deal, which was supposed to jumpstart the United States economy following the Great Depression. The voluntary work program gave more than 3 million young, unmarried, and mostly white men jobs on projects related to conservation and development of natural resources. That included building much-needed infrastructure on public lands, such as Colorado’s Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre.
To combat soil erosion that led to the catastrophic Dust Bowl of the 1930s and replenish the millions of acres of trees that had been logged the decade prior, the Corps planted over 3.5 billion trees, earning it the nickname “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” Workers in the program also spent 150 million hours fighting fires. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service—which some members of the Corps worked for—established the “10 a.m. policy.” It decreed that every fire should be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day following its initial report. Fire suppression became a huge part of the job, and thanks to 3,000 newly built fire lookouts, Corps members could spot blazes from miles away.
“They were using the best science they had at the time,” Mike Lester, Colorado’s state forester, says.
But the science they relied on has created problems for current land managers. Lester explains that before suppression techniques were used, natural fires would typically burn 100 to 200 acres of territory at a time, not 200,000 like we see today. Those occurrences would create groupings of trees that were different ages, which helped them fight off pests and wildfires.
Basically, fire suppression from the 1930s created trees of all the same age, which made them more susceptible to insect disturbances. (That allowed the mountain pine beetle to wreak havoc across the Centennial State the past few decades, leaving acres upon acres of standing dead trees.) Fire suppression also created a dangerously overloaded layer of vegetation below the forest canopy, which could act as fuel for fires.
This type of suppression remained the leading approach to fire management until the early 1970s, when federal land managers started listening to scientists about the positive role fire played in forest ecology. A “let-burn” policy was put in place to allow natural fires to occur without quickly extinguishing them. That is, until the Yellowstone fires of 1988, which burned nearly 800,000 acres. Around 1990, with the U.S. population growing near wildland-urban interfaces, fire suppression became a part of forest management policy yet again. The budget to fight fires may have gone up, but it left little room for mitigation, like forest thinning and land restoration.
Throw in historic droughts and climate change, and you get the 2020 Colorado fire season.
That brings us back to Neguse’s Civilian Climate Corps. There are several bills that have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to move the program forward. “The maintenance backlog for our national parks and our national forests is extensive,” Neguse says. Needs include trail maintenance, forest inventory and monitoring, and efforts to maintain biodiversity.
The biggest priority, though, remains wildfire mitigation, which Lester says should be done with forest thinning and prescribed burns. “Prescribed fire is an important tool, but you have to be very careful with it around where people live,” he explains.
These methods can also be costly. In Colorado alone, the USFS estimates it’ll take $4.2 billion just to mitigate the forests that are in “urgent need of treatment.” That’s almost half of the $10 billion allotted for the national Civilian Climate Corps.
In other words, what has been proposed would just be the beginning to a potential solution.