Lessons and questions left to smolder in the wake of massive suburban forest fire

BLACK FOREST, Colo. -- Handmade signs stand out against the charred trees lining Shoup Road, a main artery in this thickly wooded suburb of Colorado Springs. "Thank God and Firefighters for protecting our property," reads one. "We love our heroes!" reads another. A little farther on, a wooden sign with bright red letters notes the day's fire danger: High.

"Folks around here can't wait to get their trees back, to start rebuilding their houses," said Assistant District Forester David Root, gesturing from behind the wheel of his pickup truck toward a particularly bad patch of burn. "We've been trying to tell them that it makes more sense to replant next spring, when conditions are wetter, but they're eager to get things back to normal."

Colorado Springs has been rebuilding for the past two years, first after the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and then after the Black Forest fire this summer wiped out sections of the city's suburbs. Those fires, as well as the tragic loss of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona this summer, have heightened the national debate over wildfires and forest management (ClimateWire, July 3).

Concerns have also been raised about the proximity of humans to fire-prone regions, particularly in integrated areas known as the wildland-urban interface. In much of the West, two years of protracted drought has heightened the fire danger in these regions, complicating the task of firefighters who are charged with protecting the lives and private property that reside within them (ClimateWire, June 18).

The neighborhood of Black Forest is a prime example of this interface, its scattered houses spread among thick stands of ponderosa pine. In some corners, ruler-straight roads cut through acres of trees with hardly a structure in sight. While some sections have been thinned, many remain densely wooded and overgrown.

"You want to educate people about the dangers out here, but at the end of the day, we have no way of telling them what they can and can't do with their property," Root said. "Lots of people come out here because they want to get away from the city, want to get out in nature. And part of that, for some of them, is leaving nature the way it is."

Taking over where fire left off


The problem, he said, is that nature has not been left to its own devices. When the city of Colorado Springs was founded in the late 1800s, its surrounding forests were leveled to build the railroads then crisscrossing the West. Since that time, the forests have grown back thickly, protected from the historical fire regime by their proximity to humans and a long-standing policy of wildfire suppression.

Any forest can burn, but an overgrown forest burns hotter and longer. Fuels accumulated on the ground -- known to firefighters as "dog hairs" or "ladder fuels" -- allow fire to climb from the understory into the canopy, turning a relatively manageable grass fire into a raging inferno.

In these cases, firefighters can do little but keep their distance until the fire hits a barrier or buffer zone and returns to ground.

In the place of fire, regular thinning can keep the forest's understory clear. Standing outside his house in the northeast corner of Black Forest, Walt Seelye pointed to the place, only a dozen yards away, where the fire had drawn up short.

"I keep the grass short, about 4 inches, and I've taken the lower branches off all of the trees close to the house," he explained. "If the fire had gotten into those trees, I think we would have lost the house."

Instead, the buffer zone he created worked as intended. The fire ran into the cleared patch of lawn between his house and the woods, went to ground and was contained.

A longtime firefighting volunteer himself, Seelye is well-versed in the protocols and safety measures championed by the fire service. Still, he admitted, he learned a few lessons from the latest burn.

"I had two piles of wood here that were pretty well annihilated," he said, indicating a section of scorched earth at the lower end of the property. "Those should have been farther back. And there were juniper trees by the house that would have gone up like kerosene if the fire got into them."

Seelye thins his section of the forest by hand, cutting down smaller trees and hauling the excess fuel to a nearby slash-mulch station. But he said many of his fellow residents have difficulty keeping up that level of maintenance.

"This is a bedroom community for lots of older folks, and some of them don't have the resources to pay for a third party to come in and do the work," he said.

The problem is by no means exclusive to Colorado Springs. Across the West, forest managers and local governments are grappling with overgrowth at a time of record heat and dryness. Meanwhile, habitation of the wildland-urban interface is expanding at a steady pace, particularly in the central Rockies and eastern Cascade Mountains.

Striking a balance with the private sector

With Forest Service budgets stretched tight by the sequester and a longer, fiercer fire season eating up more and more resources, many officials are hoping a revitalized timber industry may play a role in managing accumulated fuels. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell called for a stronger role for the private sector last month, saying, "We know we cannot [restore forests' health] without a strong integrated forest products industry that can use all parts and sizes of trees to help us accomplish our restoration work" (ClimateWire, June 26).

Some legislators have leveled criticism at environmental groups, which for years challenged the logging industry and successfully raised the cost of timber harvesting. In a hearing last week, Republican members of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation focused a significant portion of their questions on the role of environmentalists in thwarting forest thinning efforts.

But the successful reintegration of the private sector may be more complicated, said the Forest Service's Root. In places like Black Forest, the timber industry -- which has the equipment and skilled labor to selectively thin forests -- faded as ownership of the forests shifted from large landowners to individual homeowners, he said.

"It changes the economics when you have to go from plot to plot, or leapfrog around them, rather than having a wide area to work in," he said.

To effectively manage forests near inhabited areas of the wildland-urban interface would require similarly selective timber harvesting. The Forest Service currently coordinates a certain level of this action with the private sector through its stewardship contracting program, which it is looking to expand.

Last year, about 25 percent of all timber in the United States was sold under stewardship contract. Meanwhile, funding for the timber sales program has roughly doubled over the past 17 years.

Others, meanwhile, stress the need to adapt to the reality of a more fire-prone future for the West. "We need to learn to live with fire," said Chris Topik, director of Restoring America's Forests at the Nature Conservancy, speaking at last week's House subcommittee hearing. "It's better for our health to have fire on our terms."

Reporter Coleen Jose contributed.

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