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First Waldo, now this. Should we just expect huge wildfires from now on? 

Black days

For the last two summers, we haven't had to flip on the TV to see apocalyptic scenes. They have been visible from our windows.

Our area has set the record two years in a row for the state's most destructive wildfires, first with the Waldo Canyon blaze and now with Black Forest. Together they have claimed at least 849 homes. Bonus: They've also put us at high risk for catastrophic flash floods.

But just think, back in early 2012, a study by insuranceproviders.com listed Colorado Springs as the second-safest city in the United States, in part because it was considered nearly immune to natural disasters.

What changed?

That's a difficult question, says Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and a forest and rangeland stewardship professor at Colorado State University.

"Fire is such a really complex, amazing thing," he says, "not unlike hurricanes, or even the tornadoes we saw this spring."

As it happens, everything from logging in the pioneer days, to decades of fire suppression, to the establishment of wilderness neighborhoods, to the popularity of outdoor sports, to weather patterns and climate change affect forest fires. And how bad they get is largely determined by factors that are tough to control, like the weather, temperature and wind.

But if there's one overwhelming cause of this destruction, it's this: The woods that edge Colorado Springs were born to burn. Thus, though there's a lot we can do to decrease the rage of future fires, there's nothing we can do to prevent them entirely.

"[Fire] is something that we always should have expected, and so we should continue to expect it, because we always have been prone to having these fairly hot, dry springs," Cheng says. "... Just like people who live in Tornado Alley, we kind of live in 'Fire Alley.' This is a place that was just kind of set up to burn."

And that may make the dream of a cabin — or mansion — in the woods look a little less tranquil.

The forest for the trees

Ponderosa pine forests don't tell many tales, but over the years experts have pieced together their history based on tree-ring records. And that history is a fiery one.

Ponderosas grow in what are known as "seasonally dry" forests, places like Colorado Springs that are prone to cyclical drought. In the past, this meant fires swept through the hills as often as every few years, though at times it might have been decades between major burns. They shaped the landscape, leaving stands of mature ponderosas — and a few clusters of Douglas fir, blue spruce and aspen — surrounded by meadows of native grasses.

These were forests made to outlive the blazes that roared through them. Regular burns meant undergrowth and brittle dead material was kept to a minimum. The scarcity of "ladder fuels" like Douglas firs — whose tall, bushy shape help fire climb from grass to treetop — meant fires often stayed low to the ground. The stretches of grass meant that fire couldn't easily take down forests of trees, and helped contain all but the most vicious, wind-swept flames to small areas.

Then, Cheng says, the pioneers came. They logged the old trees — Black Forest was hit hard in those days — taking out the mature, fire-resistant ones. With the big boys gone, smaller, weaker trees had the opportunity to take their place — and then some. They grew densely, overtaking natural meadows. Douglas fir began to creep in, claiming more of the forest.

Fires cropped up, but since the early to mid-19th century, we've fought them. And that's allowed fuel to build on the forest floor.

Now, once that tinderbox catches fire, flames can surge through the tree crowns unimpeded, urged along by the winds that whip down the Front Range. That's led to higher-severity fires. A recent I-News Network study found that in the 1960s, our state lost 8,000 acres to fire annually, according to Colorado State Forest Service records. During the last 10 years, the average climbed to nearly 100,000 acres.

"I do think it's a combination of over time, the vegetation just grows and creates a condition where it's prime for these high-severity runs," Cheng says.

He adds that the 1989 Black Tiger fire, near Boulder, was one of the first major fires to hit the wildland-urban interface, where homes and forest meet. Considered remarkably damaging at the time, it burned 44 homes.

Obviously such figures have been growing, but so has the number of people moving into the woods. I-News Network found that about one-fifth of Colorado residents — 1.1 million — now live in the wildland-urban interface. And a 2007 Colorado State University analysis projected that the state's wildland-urban interface area would grow from 715,500 acres in 2000 to 2,161,400 acres in 2030 — a 300 percent increase.

Long, hot summers

Meanwhile, the weather — or perhaps, the climate — hasn't been agreeable lately. Ongoing drought and hot summers have left area forests parched.

Even small changes in temperature make a difference to forests. A Northern California study by Headwaters Economics found in 2011 that a one-degree Fahrenheit increase in average summer temperature was associated with a 35 percent increase in areas burned by wildfire. The same company did a similar study in Oregon and found the one-degree bump was associated with 420 additional wildfires in the state per year.

Fuel moisture reports from Colorado Springs Fire Department — Fire Marshal Brett Lacey says he knows of "no other fire department in the United States" that creates reports on fuel moisture — show that at two city monitoring sites, fuels are drier now than they were in the Waldo Canyon burn area the day last year's fire erupted.

Even if we start getting more precipitation, trees aren't likely to recover soon. Darrell Schulte, a fire behavior and planning instructor and consultant who spent more than 30 years as a wildland fire and fuels manager with the U.S. Forest Service, says trees don't simply perk back at the first sign of rain.

"If we've had six or seven years of drought that have been prolonged — like we have in the West — it will take five or six years to get out of it," he says.

And there are other complicating factors. Bark beetles, now widespread in Colorado, cut into a tree's inner bark, impeding its ability to pump water to upper branches. Thus needles, already the driest part of a drought-affected tree, will become even more sapped for moisture under a beetle attack, though the tree may not brown for two to three years. Needles and small branches are what carries a fire from tree to tree.

"The effects of the drought compound with the effects of the beetles," Schulte says, "and you've got very dry forest out there."

El Paso County has always been prone to drought. But others say the condition could be permanent, the result of a changing climate.

In an article addressing recent wildfires, the Union of Concerned Scientists says climate change is causing wet areas to become wetter and dry areas to become drier.

"Wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long (comparisons are between 1970-1986 and 1986-2003)," it notes, citing a study that ran in Science in 2006.

Controlling the flames

There are ways to prevent fires, or at least lessen their effects.

Mitigation generally includes clearing debris using trucks and equipment, thinning trees with chain saws, creating defensible spaces around homes, using fire-resistant materials on structures, and — most controversially — starting controlled burns.

The good thing about firefighters setting fires, is that they can control when and where a fire happens. And controlled burns, which often also include manual removal of debris to reduce the risk of flare-ups, are the most natural and effective way to reduce fire risks.

But firefighters can't account for everything. In early 2012, for instance, a controlled burn got out of control in Jefferson County. The Lower North Fork Fire would kill three and cause millions in damages.

Other mitigation techniques also have drawbacks. Cheng notes manual debris removal can cause damage to soil and bring in invasive weeds. And homeowners are often resistant to removing trees near their homes.

What's more, any type of mitigation is incredibly expensive. Scrubbing a single acre of forest costs roughly $1,000, Cheng says, and there are perhaps 400,000 acres along the Front Range that need treatment. The Independent asked an expert from the Forest Service, representing the nearby Pike and San Isabel areas, how much the service spent on such treatments in recent years in our area, and how much more money was needed. The Service was unable to respond by deadline.

On a smaller scale, there are efforts locally. For several years now, Cheng has been working with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project Front Range Roundtable, a Forest Service program that aims to fund major mitigation projects, including one in upper Monument Creek. That area, which stretches just northwest of Colorado Springs almost to the Air Force Academy, has already seen some land burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire.

But the group still must clear environmental approvals and other hurdles before work can begin. And it needs to secure money, which would likely come from competitive federal funding and from selling the harvested wood to local businesses.

Meanwhile, at the request of Colorado's U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, the United States Department of Agriculture is working to better understand what causes huge fires, what impact they're having, and how to make strides in preventing and recovering from them.

All that said, there's another part of this equation that's perhaps harder to discuss: whether it really makes sense to live in these fire-prone woods at all.

Asked whether the USDA study might offer thoughts on this question, Bennet spokesperson Kristin Lynch says it's too early to say. She writes via email, "A prolonged drought and a warming climate are contributing to longer and more active wildfire seasons across the West compared to the past — that can't be denied. ...

"In general, however, Michael reminds all homeowners to recognize the inherent risks of living in forested areas and to do their due diligence by creating defensible space around structures and taking additional steps necessary to properly mitigate against wildfires."

stanley@csindy.com

  • Black days

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