Ski season hadn’t yet ended when the wildfires ignited in Colorado. In early March, amidst a historically dry winter, four homes and five barns were destroyed by a small blaze in Elbert County. Less than a week later, a much larger fire—covering over 28,000 acres—erupted across parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Then in April, the ninth-largest fire in state history—the Milemarker 117 fire—burned more than 40,000 acres in El Paso and Pueblo counties, taking with it 17 homes. And that was just the beginning.

As the weather grew hotter, the blazes grew bigger. In June, the 416 fire broke out north of Durango, ravaging the surrounding area. The fire temporarily closed San Juan National Forest, hurt local business, and ultimately burned more than 50,000 acres, making it the sixth-largest fire in the state’s history. Before fire managers were able to extinguish the 416 fire, one twice its size—the Spring Creek fire—was burning out of control in Costilla and Huerfano counties. In a month’s time, the Spring Creek fire burned more than 108,000 acres and destroyed more than 130 homes. By the time wildland firefighters contained the blaze, it set the mark as the third-largest fire in Colorado history, behind the 2002 Hayman fire (138,112 acres burned) and the 2013 West Fork Complex fire (109,615 acres burned).

For those keeping track, three of the largest wildfires in state history have occurred over the course of just four months. At the time of publication, more than 440,000 acres have already burned in large fires (any blaze larger than 1,000 acres) this year—and this number increases daily—making 2018 Colorado’s second most active fire season, trailing 2002, when nearly 452,000 acres burned, according to federal data analyzed by USGS research ecologist Todd Hawbaker.

We consulted a dozen forest managers, researchers, and fire scientists, and none were surprised at the outbreak of large wildfires this year. Among this group of experts, there’s a consensus that western wildfires—including those in Colorado—are burning longer and more intensely than ever before for a reason: The last century of land management focused primarily on fire suppression rather than using prescribed burning as a strategy to prevent large fires from spreading.

The problem Colorado faces today is the product of a deeply concerning, decades-in-the-making trend across the West. Now, we wrestle with an urgent question: Is it too late to fight fire with fire?

How We Got Here

Members of the Craig Hotshots firefighters return from battling the Weston Pass Fire on Monday, July 2, 2018, near Fairplay, Colo. Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily News via AP

While humans are responsible for starting more than 80 percent of fires across the country, that’s not the case here in Colorado, where nearly 70 percent of fires are sparked by lightning, according to recent research led by Jennifer Balch at the University of Colorado. Most of the fires burning in the Centennial State are naturally caused, which is in line with how the state’s landscape has evolved over millions of years.

Long before Colorado’s population swelled beyond five million and the high country was dotted with lavish homes, fires burned freely. “Our ecosystems are largely fire dependent,” says Mark Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service and one of the most respected fire scientists in the country. “They are what they are, in part, because of fire. It has been part of these ecosystems since the last ice age.”

Historically, when natural-caused fires did burn, it wasn’t a bad thing. Frequent, low-intensity fires thinned forests, burned dead wildland vegetation, and created barren burn areas that would stop future fires before they could grow larger. Moreover, low-intensity fires allowed nutrients to return to the soil, helping new plants grow and ultimately producing healthier forests.

But as a growing number of European settlers moved into Colorado’s forestland, there was a shift in perspective. Scientists and land managers often reference the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)—an area where homes, development, and wildland vegetation coexist. Today, a disproportionate number of Coloradans live in WUI areas. Despite the fact that, land-wise, the WUI only covers about 3.5 percent of the state, approximately 41 percent of the population lives in these zones. What’s more is that nearly 43 percent of all homes are in the WUI, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted by the U.S Forest Service and Volker Radeloff, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

“There’s a lot of property at risk in Colorado and throughout the West,” says Tania Schoennagel, a University of Colorado research scientist who studies the impacts of western forest disturbances. “All of that development that was quietly happening in the forest is now meeting extremely hot, dry conditions with large, devastating wildfires.”

In the early 1900s, federal land managers turned to fire suppression to protect human lives and structures. And as populations in the WUI increased throughout the 20th century, federal resources were largely directed toward fighting fires once they’d started burning.

“We’re always going to want to suppress fires, especially when they threaten communities or other critical infrastructure,” explains Matthew Thompson, a member of the U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Risk Management Science Team. “We have a bias-for-action culture that rewards initial attack success.”

While understandable, this strategy also has consequences. “The more we double down on suppression,” Thompson says, “The more fuels accumulate, and [future] fire becomes more difficult to suppress.” This problem has created a frustrating scenario, something land managers often refer to as the “fire paradox.”

A Burning (But Complicated) Solution

Fire suppression has left Colorado with an abundance of fuel in its forests. Couple that with a growing population, and the risk of ignition is compounded. If land managers had their way, most would institute more large-scale “broadcast” prescribed burning—setting intentional fires in a controlled environment and letting them burn a specific number of acres—in order to burn excess fuel and decrease the risk of large fires in the future.

“The more we can get fire under our terms on the landscape, the less we have fires that are outside of our control,” Thompson says. “The more we burn, the more we are able to do it. Previously treated areas act as a sort of catcher’s mitt to a future fire’s chance of spreading rapidly or outside of our control. The more of the landscape we can treat with prescribed burns, that provides us with more opportunities to corral next year’s burn.”

Thompson’s sentiment is echoed by wildfire scientists across the country. But instituting prescribed burns at scale is not simple. First, conditions have to be just right in order for wildland firefighters to intentionally set land ablaze, and not all forests burn in the same way. Even if land managers do identify a good area and have time for a controlled burn, the weather—high wind, for instance—could derail the plan or prevent the fire from being set in the first place.

Moreover, Colorado has no specific prescribed fire workforce. Federal and state land managers employ wildland firefighters that put down a relatively small amount of prescribed fire throughout the year, mostly during shoulder season (early spring and late fall in Colorado.) But even during this timeframe, if a natural fire breaks out, wildland firefighters could be forced to abandon controlled burning plans in order to fight a larger fire in another part of the state or country.                        

This lack of resources was recently studied by a team of researchers led by Courtney Schultz, director of the Public Lands Policy Group and an associate professor at Colorado State University. The six-person team analyzed prescribed fire policies and strategies in 11 western states and found that “Lack of capacity and funding, and challenges sharing resources across agencies were the most significant barriers to accomplishing more prescribed fire.” The researchers also found that regulations governing air quality, while “not the primary variable limiting their application of prescribed fire,” in some cases prevented land managers from sparking controlled burns—especially near larger population centers.

“Air quality and public health concerns could be a barrier to ramping up the prescribed burns,” Thompson says. “Yes, [prescribed fire] does put up smoke. But do we want to deal with a little bit of smoke in times that can be communicated to the public and mitigated, or do we want huge, very intense, episodic exposures to future events?”

Risk, too, is a critical factor when evaluating prescribed fire—especially here in Colorado. Typically, when controlled burns are set, they are closely monitored and extinguished before they threaten communities. But fire can be unpredictable, and even prescribed burns can get out of control. On March 22, 2012, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) set a controlled burn south of Conifer as part of the Lower North Fork Prescribed Fire Project. Initially, the burn went according to plan and over several days CSFS monitored the fire. But at approximately 12:40 p.m. on March 26, according to an independent review of the incident, high winds during a red flag warning resulted in the prescribed burn escaping its boundary and turning into a destructive wildfire.

By the time the Lower North Fork fire was done burning, three people were dead and 27 houses had been destroyed or substantially damaged. While high winds led to the eruption, the independent review found that CSFS left the burn unstaffed on March 25—the third day following ignition—which was “not consistent with burn plan requirements.” The state ultimately took responsibility for the fire, paying victims $18.2 million in total settlements and altering its policy and approach concerning broadcast burning on state land.

“We take our lessons learned seriously. The Lower North Fork is a tragic example of the potential things that can go wrong in a prescribed fire,” says Jeremy Bailey, who spent 13 years as a wildland firefighter in Colorado and New Mexico and now directs prescribed fire training for the Nature Conservancy (TNC). “But that is extremely rare compared to the volume of burning we do.” Bailey says that “less than half a percent” of prescribed fires escape predetermined boundaries, and of that half a percent, the vast majority do not threaten any structures or human life. To back that up, Finney added that this event is “so rare I’m not sure you could find reliable statistics.”

Still, the Lower North Fork fire incident illustrates why prescribed fires are so hard to execute and difficult to sell to the public. With limited capacity, unpredictable weather, and skittish property owners, conducting a controlled burn leaves land managers with a narrow window of opportunity and a broad range of liability.

Is It Too Late?

Despite its barriers and risks, land managers maintain that prescribed fire is absolutely necessary and woefully underutilized. But at this point, it would take an unprecedented amount of controlled fire to burn enough land in order to return Colorado to historical conditions. According to research conducted by Finney in 2013, at least 80,000 acres of suitable federal and non-federal land would have to be treated by prescribed fire annually over a 20-year period (approximately 1.6 million acres total) in order to recreate normal levels of burning—and that’s just on the Front Range of Colorado. Statewide, at least 288,000 acres would need to burn each year.

When you compare those aspirational numbers to the amount of prescribed burning actually being done each year in Colorado, the sense of urgency becomes clear. It’s hard to know precisely how much total land is being treated by prescribed fire annually in Colorado because several federal and state agencies and other groups (nonprofits and farmers, for instance) also utilize fire and overlap their efforts. However, our research indicates fewer than 25,000 combined acres are being treated in Colorado by broadcast burning on federal, state, and private land each year.

According to federal data analyzed on 5280’s behalf by Mike Caggiano, a research associate at Colorado State University, between 2005 and 2017 only about 18,000 acres of National Forest land were reportedly treated each year by prescribed fire in Colorado. On Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, just 2,273 acres were burned, a spokesman said. And according to Kirk Will, prescribed fire unit chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control, only about 300 to 600 acres are being burned annually on state land. Additionally, between September 2017 and March 2018, the Colorado TNC chapter reports that it burned 3,455 acres (including 400 piles burned) primarily on private land and assisted the USFS in burning 1,600 acres, according to Gabe Donaldson, TNC’s Colorado Fire Program Manager.

Most land managers agree that these numbers fall well short of what Colorado needs to accomplish. “We have a significant fire deficit,” Bailey says. “When we don’t use prescribed fire, we are kicking the can down the road. We are passing the risk on to the next generation.”

Fire crews work on a prescribed burn south of Silt, Colo on Thursday, April 16, 2018. Photo by Chelsea Self / Glenwood Springs Post Independent via AP

There may be no substitute for fire on western landscapes, but it’s worth noting that prescribed fire is not the only tactic employed to mitigate wildfire. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently advocated for mechanical thinning, or clear cutting trees, in a USA Today op-ed. While this process can be useful, many land managers insist that it can’t be done at the same scale as prescribed fire, and therefore should not be considered an alternative to burning. “Cutting and harvesting has been shown to have a valuable contribution to fuel mitigation. But not by itself,” Finney says. “You can cut, you can harvest, you can do all the right things from a mechanical standpoint. But if you don’t use prescribed fire, you haven’t got a fuel treatment.”

Moreover, “broadcast” burning is not the only type of fire that forest managers use. Land managers can also let certain fires run their course and burn additional acreage when they don’t threaten critical resources or lives. And “pile” burning—collecting fuel from the forest floor, piling it up, and burning it—has also proven to be an effective strategy, though not at the same scale as broadcast burns.

Of course, making up the deficit in prescribed fire would be a daunting task, given how much work needs to be done and the number of people moving into Colorado’s WUI zones. And even if enough prescribed burning is accomplished, large fires will still persist. “[Prescribed fires] won’t make the larger wildfires go away. They’re still going to occur,” Schoennagel says. “But we can use fire as a tool to help reduce risk in certain areas.”

One reason we’ll continue to see large fires is because Colorado is growing warmer and drier. According to a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most of Colorado has warmed between one and two degrees in the last century. “One driver in these increases in wildfire across the West are these changes in climate,” Schoennagel says. “Unless we can turn that around, we have to expect that wildfires—large wildfires—are going to be inevitable.”  

Schoennagel is not alone in her thinking. And if large wildfires continue to burn with more intensity, Colorado residents are increasingly going to be at risk. “You better believe we’re going to have a lot more wildfires,” Bailey says. “And we’re going to have a lot more dead people on the Front Range in Colorado because of the way we build our homes and where we build our homes and where we like to live.” Despite that fear, Bailey remains optimistic. “I know that I’m still going to lose friends to wildfire fatalities. I know that we’re still going to have thousands of homes burn down every year,” he says. “But I also know that we are getting better at this work.”

Finney, too, harbors tempered optimism despite the discouraging fire deficit in Colorado. “We haven’t seen the worst fire in Colorado history yet,” he says.  But when asked whether it’s too late to burn our way out of this problem, he replied emphatically: “No. Absolutely not. It’s not too late at all. Humans can change. They can adjust their perspectives on these things. And hopefully before it’s too late.”

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.