Panel probes planned burns, forest health

State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, talks Monday to residents who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer. The fire started March 26 as a prescribed burn that got out of control, and Roberts is leading the legislative commission to see how the state can be better prepared for fires in the future. In the background is Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin, one of the first people to respond to the fire. Enlarge photo

Joe Hanel/Durango Herald

State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, talks Monday to residents who lost their homes in the Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer. The fire started March 26 as a prescribed burn that got out of control, and Roberts is leading the legislative commission to see how the state can be better prepared for fires in the future. In the background is Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin, one of the first people to respond to the fire.

CONIFER – The view from the ridgetop where Ellen Roberts stood Monday showed a landscape of life mixed with death.

Lush green grasses and yellow wildflowers jutted out of the ground, which was still littered with deep black chunks of charcoal that used to be trees. A faint smell of smoke still hung in the air, five months after the Lower North Fork Fire passed through here.

Two ridges away, a home that neighbors call the “miracle house” stood proudly on top of the hill. Not far away was the foundation of another house that didn’t get any miracles.

The fire started March 26 as a prescribed burn that escaped. Legislators set up a commission to look into the fire and put Roberts, a Republican senator from Durango, in charge of the panel.

Three people died in the Lower North Fork Fire, making it Colorado’s deadliest this year. But when legislators set up their fire commission in March, they did not know that 2012 would turn into the most destructive fire season in state history, with more than 600 homes lost.

Roberts is steering the group to look at not just the fire half an hour from Denver, but also at Colorado’s response to future fires.

The scene on the ridgetop showed just how difficult that will be.

On one hand, healthy new grasses and bushes are thriving, just as land managers hoped they would after the prescribed burn cleared out the overgrown hillside.

But angry residents who lost homes and friends in the fire confronted legislators and local fire officials, demanding tighter controls on prescribed burns.

One man who lost his house said state fire officials were guilty of killing people at the Lower North Fork blaze.

Roberts tried to calm tempers, saying she faced evacuation herself from several fires this summer.

“I get the panic. I understand. I did not lose my house, and I did not lose a family member, but I do know how deep that must cut,” Roberts said.

Roberts advocates for smarter use of prescribed fires, and she has been critical of the state health department for being too stingy in approving permits to do prescribed burns.

But for people who lost their homes in March, the rules around prescribed burns weren’t strict enough.

Foresters insist that they need to set more prescribed fires to reduce fuel loads in the forests. The first major witness Monday morning was Mike Babler, fire program manager for The Nature Conservancy. He supports more used of prescribed burns.

The ponderosa and conifer forests on the Front Range usually burn once every 10 to 60 years, but they haven’t had the chance to burn for more than a century. The result has been fires up to a hundred times larger than major fires used to be, he said.

“We believe we need to restore fire to its natural role, rather than allowing unnatural, large, destructive fires to continue,” Babler said.

Bill McLaughlin had been chief of the Elk Creek Fire Department for just five weeks when the Lower North Fork Fire escaped its containment line. But he toured his new fire district before the disaster and knew he was in for a difficult job.

“My take on it was this is one of the highest risk places in the country to live right now,” McLaughlin said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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