Did fire policy burn Colorado?

Forest management proves to be a delicate balance

The Weber Fire began June 22, and by the next day was about a half mile from crossing U.S. Highway 160 near Mancos Hill. It burned 10,000 acres. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald file photo

The Weber Fire began June 22, and by the next day was about a half mile from crossing U.S. Highway 160 near Mancos Hill. It burned 10,000 acres.

DENVER (AP) – Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Forest Service boldly announced a goal of eradicating hazardously overgrown forests nationwide by 2015.

That goal is long gone.

The threat to Colorado homes in 2013, it now appears, will likely be as high as ever. Forest restoration and bush clearance have lagged even as new housing is built in threatened areas. And, for a variety of reasons, little progress was made this year in reducing the fire danger.

Instead, 2012 saw a drastic change in Forest Service policy. Officials say the shift was done for just one year because of the unusual emergency but that, nonetheless, the overall picture remains one of stretched resources, dry woodlands and endangered homes.

From the first days of spring, 2012 looked like a potentially disastrous year for wildfires. Winter had brought scant snow to the Rocky Mountains. The summer forecast: hot and dry.

What almost nobody knew, though, was that the Forest Service had determined it might not have enough people and equipment to control the year’s wildfires.

At its Washington headquarters, those fears led Forest Service deputy chief Jim Hubbard to issue a May 25 directive to agency field offices:

Fight all fires unless given special permission.

Seventeen years of Forest Service policy, decreeing that fires are a natural and necessary feature of the forest ecosystem, were reversed in a two-page memo. In 2012, the agency couldn’t take the chance of letting them burn, and it couldn’t devote resources to restoration or clearance.

“It looked like a fire year that would exceed our resource capacity to respond,” Hubbard said in an interview. “We didn’t have the resources to cover long-duration events.”

Hubbard’s fire-suppression directive came six years after a federal audit concluded with an ominous warning about the dangers lurking in the nation’s overgrown forests.

At current rates of treatment, it would take 60 to 90 years to restore healthy conditions, reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfires for firefighters and homeowners, the audit found. Meanwhile, in fire-prone areas of the western Rocky Mountains, 2.2 million homes were expected to exist by 2030 – a 40 percent increase.

That alarm was sounded by the agency overseeing the Forest Service – the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gaining ground

Forest Service officials took the warning to heart. For the next six years, they seemed to be gaining ground. Each year, they treated 2 million to 3 million acres of forests by thinning them mechanically or setting controlled fires. Lightning-ignited fires were allowed to burn in forests far from human habitat.

Then came 2012.

In Washington, the order came to suppress all wildfires and forget about forest restoration this year.

And, in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper halted all controlled burns in state forests after one blew out of control in March, flaring into a wildfire that killed three homeowners.

Forest Service leaders still say they are making progress, year by year, and focusing their forest-treatment efforts in the most vital places, such as forests bordering mountain communities.

“Each of us is hoping that when we retire, things will be better than they are now,” said Elizabeth Reinhardt, assistant director for fire and aviation management at the Forest Service.

Others doubt things are getting better in the woods.

Prevention pays off

In Colorado, foresters and firefighters take pride in what their preventive measures have accomplished already. This year, in two of the worst wildfires in state history, they say previous forest-treatment programs saved a neighborhood and a reservoir serving 300,000 people in northern Colorado and another neighborhood in Colorado Springs.

Yet they also see signs of growing trouble. Climate change is lengthening the wildfire season and drying the forests, they say, and a possibly related infestation of pine-bark beetles left vast expanses of Colorado forests standing dry and dead.

“I think we’re in a continuing downward trend for overall forest health,” said Scott Woods, staff forester at the Colorado State Forest Service.

Everywhere, it’s a race against time. With each passing year, forests with 10 times the number of trees they once held are ready to burn with devastating fury in the event of a lightning strike or careless campfire. Residential development is pushing higher and deeper into the woods.

Counting on grants

Matt Schulz, a forest-management coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, based in northern Colorado, just hopes the federal grants that have subsidized the state’s treatment efforts keeping trickling down.

“These grants are really what’s saved us at this point,” he said.

Hubbard’s directive informed Forest Service offices that for 2012, fire suppression was in and restoration was out.

“I expect regional forester approval of any suppression strategy that includes restoration objectives,” he wrote. “I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long run.”

At Colorado State University, professor Doug Rideout and others from the forestry department toured the High Park fire area – and noticed surviving homes that still had no defensible space between them and the forest.

To create a defensible area around your home, “you could easily be out 3 to 10 grand. Let’s not blame the homeowners; let’s understand their behavior,” he said.

Rideout concluded that federal and state expenditures to protect homes in wildfire-prone areas may perversely provide developers and homeowners an incentive to do nothing.

“The federal programs, they’re sort of a Catch-22,” he said. “We make the wildland-urban interface a more desirable place to live, we’re more likely to have a higher property loss in a wildfire. It’s a difficult problem for both the homeowners and the federal government.”

The Little Sand Fire north of Pagosa Springs grew to nearly 25,000 acres and burned for nearly two months before containment. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

The Little Sand Fire north of Pagosa Springs grew to nearly 25,000 acres and burned for nearly two months before containment.