If forests and homes west of Colorado Springs go up in flames this spring or summer, some will be sure to blame Smokey Bear. Others might point fingers at El Paso County's commissioners.
Experts agree that decades of overzealous fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service, while well intended, has actually left Pike National Forest -- like many other federal lands -- at increased risk of disastrous wildfires. Meanwhile, El Paso County has allowed thousands of new homes to be built in areas identified as being at high risk for wildfires, while failing to require that those homes be fire resistant.
On April 22, due to unusually dry conditions, Pike National Forest enacted "Stage 1" fire restrictions, banning most open fires outside of developed campgrounds. Normally, such constraints aren't put into place until June, said Christina Randall, assistant fire management officer for the Pikes Peak Ranger District, based in Colorado Springs. The district has beefed up its fire prevention patrols and has firefighting crews on standby as far away as Idaho.
"Everybody's on edge," Randall said.
Fire is good
But this year's drought isn't the only factor raising the prospect of an inferno. Like many other national forests, Pike National Forest has an overabundance of "fuel" -- trees and other growth that may burn -- due to decades of vigorous fire suppression, symbolized by the Forest Service's Smokey Bear mascot.
In recent years, experts have come to realize that wildfires are actually a beneficial force in forest ecosystems, and that when they're suppressed, fuel builds up to the point where fires, once they inevitably occur, become disastrous.
"The general consensus is that we've sort of blown it over the past century," said Peter Marchand of the Catamount Institute, an environmental research institute near Woodland Park, which is studying the ecological impact of forest fire prevention efforts.
Fire suppression has caused the 1.1 million-acre Pike National Forest to become "overstocked" with fuel, Marchand said.
In a 1999 study, environmental researcher Peter Brown found that wildfires used to occur naturally in Pike National Forest every 10 to 20 years up until the 1870s.
At that point, cattle grazing began to reduce the number and intensity of fires because it lessened the amount of grass, and many forest fires start as grass fires, said Brown, who works for Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research in Fort Collins. Conscious efforts to suppress wildfires followed throughout most of the 20th century.
As a result, there has been no major wildfire in Pike National Forest since 1898, when a blaze engulfed most of the Pikes Peak Ranger District, Randall said.
Errors of the past
Now, if a big wildfire breaks out, it will burn much hotter and cause much more damage than the fires that used to burn regularly and with less intensity, Brown says.
"Because of fire suppression, we've ended up with much worse conditions when fires eventually occur," he said.
The Forest Service has recognized the errors of its ways for some time, but efforts to change how the service manages fires have been slow. The Pikes Peak Ranger District conducted a 6,000-acre prescribed burn last year and is working on a "mechanical thinning" project -- reducing the amount of fuel by selective logging. But scientists and policymakers are still studying how to best manage forests in terms of fire prevention.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of homes in northern and western El Paso County are at risk if large wildfires break out. According to a recent analysis by the Rocky Mountain News, between 1990 and 2000 some 2,000 new homes were built in parts of the county that are within the "red zone," areas identified as high-risk for wildfires, bringing the total number to an estimated 13,900.
While some Front Range counties have enacted "fire-smart" building codes, requiring that homes in high-risk areas be made fire resistant, El Paso County has forgone such requirements.
"It's more government regulations," said Chuck Brown, an El Paso County commissioner whose district covers much of the western part of the county. "I personally think it's not necessary."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged to fund firefighting efforts in the West -- meaning that taxpayers across the nation will help foot the bill if El Paso County homes are threatened. Still, Brown insists, he believes people who build in the foothills and mountains are taking their own risks and should be able to do so without government regulations getting in the way.
"People have to take responsibility for what they're doing," Brown said.