Are we replacing one hazard with another?

When it comes to preventing catastrophic wildfires like the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, forest managers feel hopelessly outmatched.

A 2008 Statewide Forest Resource Assessment shows more than 24 million acres of Colorado’s forested lands are now overgrown and unhealthy because of fire suppression or other land-management practices, with 6.8 million acres desperately in need of treatment to improve their resiliency to fire, insects and disease.

While mechanical thinning and prescribed fire remain important tools, says Steve Segin, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, the expectations of how much impact they could have was inflated after the Hayman Fire – the state’s largest recorded – and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

“There’s so much forest that needs to be treated in Colorado,” Segin says. “We’re never going to be able to catch up. We’ll never be able to make a dent.”

Prescribed burns require permits from state air-quality officials, must meet strict weather, fuel moisture and staffing conditions and often face resistance from nearby residents. So although more than 400 proposed burns received permits last year, those projects touched only a fraction of the fuel load that needs to be incinerated.

Burns that spread out of control increase resistance from the public. In the wake of the Lower North Fork Fire, which killed three people, Gov. John Hickenlooper put a moratorium on prescribed burns in the state until an investigation was completed. Prescribed fires from Colorado Springs to Boulder were canceled.

Fires on cut or chipped wood don’t burn the way natural wildfires do. When Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin arrived at the Lower North Fork Fire, the fire was actually burning downhill, rather than up. The flames were largely on “masticated” fuels – timber that had been cut down, chipped into a course mulch and spread out to dry until an appropriate time to burn it.

“I had never seen a ground fire running through masticated fuels like that. It looked like just a 4-inch bed of charcoal burning everywhere. The fire was burning downhill into native fuels.”

Some foresters and fire managers worry that incomplete mitigations, particularly those that leave fuel on the ground waiting for a prescribed burn that may never come, can increase the fire hazard.

During the Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder in September 2010, hundreds of stacks of wood from fuel treatments – jack piles – burned hot and launched thousands of embers.

Some witnesses disputed it, but in the preliminary Fourmile Canyon Fire report released last fall, investigators reported that fire mitigation and fuel treatments did little good. That may be because of the abundance of fuel left behind by treatments, or because the jigsaw puzzle of private and public lands allowed only treatments on so small a scale that the exploding wildfire could easily overrun them.

“The Lower North Fork and the Fourmile taught us about the need to take care of the slash and the ground fuels,” says Tony Cheng, director of Front Range Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project at Colorado State University. “The ground fuels are the ones that make the fires burn hotter and into the tree crowns. How do we deal with all these? Are we replacing one hazard with another hazard?”