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This time last year, the Cameron Peak Fire was raging in Northern Colorado, and the East Troublesome Fire had exploded over the Continental Divide—becoming two of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. Luckily, we haven’t experienced comparable blazes in 2021, but that doesn’t mean Colorado is out of the woods.
The state encompasses a complex web of nearly a dozen types of forests that cover close to 24.5 million acres. Because we haven’t properly cared for these areas, our forests are now less healthy, less resilient, and overgrown with a buildup of dead and dry fuel just waiting to ignite. This makes increasingly destructive wildfires more likely—which is particularly concerning for the more than 50 percent of Coloradans who live within the wildland-urban interface and are at elevated risk of being impacted by infernos.
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Our inaction has also pushed Colorado to become one of the five worst among the Lower 48 states when it comes to forest carbon emissions. Centennial State forests emit more carbon than they store at a time when we’re already well behind on our emissions reduction goals and the entire world is facing a climate crisis. Healthy trees capture carbon, but wildfires, decaying trees, and insect-ravaged forests all do the opposite, releasing excess carbon into the air. We’ve also reduced our forested lands by pushing farther into them with our homes and other manmade structures.
“Things are really out of whack in our forests. We’ve gotten really good at … removing that essential natural process [fire] out of the forest,” says Weston Toll, the watershed program specialist for the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), the state’s chief forestry agency. “What we’ve done is created a situation in many areas where the forest is super thick and unhealthy. That makes it so insects and disease are easier to transport. … I liken it to how COVID-19 spreads through people in close proximity; it’s the same thing for pathogens through the trees.”
According to CSFS’ 2020 forest health report, nearly one-quarter of the standing trees in our forests are dead wood. The majority of them were killed by insects (remember the mountain pine beetle epidemic?), which increased the available fuel by drying out the trees and helped, well, fuel the uncharacteristic wildfires we’ve seen of late.
A century of fire suppression and poor forest management combined with these insect infestations and climate change–driven droughts and warming temperatures have resulted in “wildfires that are larger and more intense than in previous years,” says Lawrence Lujan, modern media manager for the United States Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office.
Burned forests can also threaten the water supply here and in the 17 downstream states that rely on the Colorado River, as ash and debris clog infrastructure and decaying greenery is no longer able to properly absorb precipitation. (Per the CSFS report, “80 percent of Colorado residents rely on forested watersheds for clean drinking water.”) And, as many drivers experienced late this summer when I-70 was repeatedly shut down through Glenwood Canyon, these singed sites sometimes threaten communities with flooding and generally impact travel and business.
“I don’t think the average person who lives here on the Front Range makes a connection when they get into the shower in the morning or turn on the tap for drinking water or to wash the dishes,” Toll says. “That water all fell up in the mountains.” Trees, roots, and other brush, he adds, act as a filter, cleaning the water we rely on to sustain life.
Which gets to the bigger issue: It’s not just about wildfires and all of their associated consequences. We rely on hardy forests because they create healthy watersheds; filter pollutants, including carbon, from the air; support the timber, agriculture, ranching, and outdoor recreation industries; offer abundant places to eat and live for our resident wildlife; and serve as places for us humans to play.
In other words: We need our forests, and we need them in good shape.
“It’s a cascading issue with no simple solution,” says Daniel Beveridge, wildfire mitigation program specialist at CSFS. “Fire is directed in its behavior by fuels, weather, and topography. We can do nothing about topography. There’s very little we can do about weather. When it comes to fuels, we can manage that, but it takes a lot of time, effort, skill, and funding.”
CSFS received a little help with that last one. During the 2020 legislative session, the state approved $6 million for community-level forest restoration and wildfire risk mitigation via grants administered by the organization. That could translate to prescribed burns; thinning trees and removing other potential fuel (by hand or using machines); building defensible space near homes by, for example, removing flammable vegetation in the surrounding areas and adding noncombustible material near foundations so embers don’t ignite structures; post-fire planting to help landscapes recover; and adopting smart land-use policies, like actively managing invasive species.
The idea, Toll says, is to return the forests to a “more natural condition” by addressing the unique needs of each type of forest. For example, he explains, patch-cutting lodgepole pine stands can replicate what historically happened when fires rolled through every 100 years or so. These efforts also provide firefighters with a leg up when blazes do ignite.
One of the goals of CSFS’ report was to help prioritize these sorts of projects around the state so a coalition of federal, state, and private agencies can get moving on this necessary work. Undoing decades of poor forest management is a slow process, requiring money and commitment and workers from various agencies, but it is underway.
Community education is key, too. People need to understand that fires are necessary and come with positives, namely clearing out dead vegetation and encouraging new growth. And private landowners—who own approximately 35 percent of Colorado’s forested lands, per Beveridge—can work to better protect their homes and manage the surrounding forests in order to maintain their health and lessen wildfire risk.
“Everybody has a role in reducing the kind of wildfire exposure that, as a society, we have to deal with,” Beveridge says. “Fire can’t continue to be absolutely vilified. It’s something that has always existed on our landscapes in Colorado. … So, learning to adapt to its inevitable impacts … is a critically important concept for folks to come to grips with.”