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Along with everything else that happened in 2020, Colorado’s fire season was exceptionally catastrophic. More than 625,000 acres burned across the state with the three largest recorded fires in Centennial State history occurring in one 366-day spin around the sun. With their intense flames, choking smoke, and indiscriminate power to destroy life and property, the fast-moving fires were the sardonic cherry on top of an already tragic year. And according to experts, the fiery hellscape that was Colorado’s 2020 fire season is just a preview of what’s to come, unless land managers drastically change the state’s fire strategy.
Although the crimson sunsets they rendered make it difficult to forget, the state’s fire timeline looked something like this: On July 31, lightning ignited a blaze about 18 miles north of Grand Junction and burned at an exponential rate. In a single night, the Pine Gulch fire grew to 30,000 acres. Just 10 days later, the Grizzly Creek fire erupted in Glenwood Canyon—a chain dragging on I-70 sent sparks into the dry underbrush—threatening Hanging Lake and roasting more than 32,000 acres. A few days after that, on August 13, a conflagration that would become the largest wildfire in state history exploded in Poudre Canyon outside of Fort Collins. Burning for nearly four months, the Cameron Peak fire (the cause of which is still unknown) destroyed homes and ravaged more than 208,000 acres and encroached one of Colorado’s most beautiful landscapes—Rocky Mountain National Park. The immense East Troublesome fire, which ultimately scorched 192,560 acres in Grand County after starting as a small blaze on October 14 (it’s believed to be human-caused), grew by 100,000 acres in less than 24 hours, displacing thousands and killing two people.
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The Centennial State finally got some much-needed relief from the flames when snow dusted the mountains on October 25, but in the end, Colorado’s wildfires cost the state well north of $200 million in fire-suppression efforts. It also cost Coloradans a lot of money, angst, and trauma. “Clearly, what we’re doing is not sustainable,” says Mark Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service. “We are not engaging in managing fire in a proactive fashion. We wait until they start and then we run around to try and put them out…and that doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work.” Finney says that in order to minimize the chances of large-scale wildfires—whether they are started naturally or are human-caused—we actually need more fire on the landscape. “This means more prescribed burning, more harvesting,” he says.
Jeremy Bailey, who directs prescribed fire programs for the non-profit environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), agrees the historic fires we witnessed this summer are a product of our lousy fire-suppression methods. For the past 100 years, Colorado has relied heavily on fire suppression to manage wildland fires. This means instead of proactively limiting the potential for catastrophic fires, federal agencies like the Division of Fire Prevention and Control focus on fighting active blazes using firefighters, airplanes, smokejumpers, and chemicals. While this strategy works to put out flames, fires leave behind an abundance of fuel in the form of burnt trees, shrubbery, and other debris, which can then turn run-of-the-mill wildfires into dangerous infernos.
“A majority of the fires that happen in shrubland and forest landscapes are burning with an extra intensity that is due to an absence of fire or a deficit of fire,” Bailey says. Not only is fire beneficial for sustaining healthy ecosystems, experts argue that prescribed burns are necessary to eliminate the fuel that’s built up in Colorado’s landscape over that past century due to dead trees, drought, and fire suppression tactics. And in Colorado, there’s fuel aplenty. “The beetle kill from about 15 years ago is starting to catch up with us now,” Finney says. “We had about one and a half million acres of lodgepole pine forest die. All of these dead trees are coming down on the ground and when you have an extremely dry year like this, you have fuel that’s continuous from one end of the horizon to the next.”
Dave Lasky, who spent 20 years as a wildland firefighter, argues that our century-long strategy of stopping natural fire—that is, fire that’s typically caused by lightning and burns freely—from burning has contributed to massive wildland fires, like the 2002 Hayman Fire. But because of decades of population growth, letting the landscape burn is not always possible. That’s where prescribed burns come in. “Intentionally putting good fire on the ground is a really effective way—both biologically effective and cost effective—of treating large portions of the landscape,” Lasky says. “By reintroducing natural fire, we reduce all of the fuels that are built up.”
But prescribed burns aren’t as easy as lighting a match. According to Bailey, they must be set to burn with the right intensity and at the right time of year. Land managers must also contend with human development that encroaches upon forested lands. Known as the Wildland-Urban Interface—where structures and other human developments meet or intermingle with wildland vegetation—these areas make prescribed burns difficult, leaving fire suppression as the easiest option for fire management. And then there’s the issue of resources and priorities. “There’s a lot of work that goes into getting a prescribed fire accomplished,” Bailey says. “But the biggest challenge is that it’s just not a priority for state and federal agencies.”
Even if prescribed burning became a larger part of Colorado’s fire-fighting strategy, there’s such a backlog of need that it would be close to impossible to make significant progress. According to research analyzed on 5280’s behalf in 2018 by Mike Caggiano, a research associate for the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University, roughly 288,000 acres would need to be burned each year in order to return Colorado’s landscape to its healthiest form. Because federal agencies and environmental organizations like TNC participate in prescribed burns, it’s difficult to know how many acres were purposely burned in 2020, but in fiscal year 2020—which spans October 2019 to September 2020—the Forest Service implemented 13,336 acres of broadcast burning in Colorado (data for October 2020 and beyond was not yet available as of press time). To even come close to treating nearly 300,000 acres statewide, Finney says more funding and trained personnel would be needed. “These are limitations that agencies, whether it’s state level or federal level, have suffered for several decades,” he says.
Although experts are clearly frustrated by Colorado’s current status of wildfire management, they hope 2020’s devastation provides a reason to reevaluate our policies and procedures. At the very least, Lasky believes that the conversation around fires has been changing. “Twenty years ago, when I started [fighting fires], everybody talked about, if there’s a fire. Now, 20 years later, everybody talks about when there will be a fire.” He says the shift was notable in Polis’ 2021 budget proposal, which recommends $78 million for preventing and managing wildfires (for contrast, the state allocated $16.5 million to the Department of Fire Prevention and Control as part of Colorado’s 2020 Wildfire Preparedness Fund). Whether any of these funds will be used to carry out prescribed burns in 2021 remains to be seen.