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Homes complicate wildfire fight

Cliff Thompson

Efforts to reduce wildfire danger in the West have been complicated by the region’s explosive population growth. Homes built in and near the woods are literally adding fuels to wildfires.

In Colorado alone, there are an estimated one million people living in the “red zone,” putting them in harm’s way should there be a wildfire. In Eagle County, there are several thousand homes in the red zone.

Tom Fry, wildfire program coordinator for the Wilderness Society –an environmental group – said the Healthy Forest Initiative, a bill making its way through Congress, doesn’t focus enough on homes in the red zone.



Creating “defensible spaces” around homes in the red zone would be a more practical approach than trying to treat millions of acres of forest, the solution proposed by the bill.

“We know where the houses are. We don’t know where the fires will be,” said Fry, a former volunteer firefighter and forest service employee. “To say we need to revise environmental laws is a red herring.”



U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, is another critic of the initiative. He said the bill fails to focus on wildfire threats in the highest priority areas, goes too far in overturning environmental protections and adds a number of provisions that are not essential to reducing risks in the highest-priority areas.

Prehistoric fires were more frequent and of lower intensity than some of the monstrous fires witnessed over the last few summers. Thinning forests, along with setting controllable fires, is seen as the best way to protect forests.

An old saying quips that federal land managers spend nine months talking about how much land in their districts needs to burn and then three months putting out every fire that is sparked during fire season.



The current state of forests had its start in 1910 when the “Big Blowup” burned nearly 3 million acres in just two days in northwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, killing dozens of people and destroying hundreds of homes. After that fire, federal land management agencies adopted a policy of extinguishing any and all fires. The U.S. Forest Service’s icon became Smokey the Bear who intones, “Remember – only you can prevent forest fires.”

Recent consecutive years of drought have allowed huge wildfires to roar across portions of the West. Ultimately, healthy forest growth is interrupted by man’s fire suppression activities.

In 2002, 7.1 million acres of wildlands burned during some of the worst wildfires ever seen. Among them were the 137,000-acre Hayman Fire southwest of Denver, the 469,000-acre Rodeo/Chediski fire in Arizona and the 12,300-acre Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs. The fires burned several hundred homes and were responsible for the deaths of 23 people.

“The intensity of the 2002 wildfire season proved to us of what kind of danger we are in if we don’t work to defend ourselves from these infernos,” said U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, the sponsor of the Healthy Forest Initiative.

Recent fires are behaving differently than many fires in the past because they burned fiercely enough, in some cases, that they even burned the critical top inches of forest soil. Those fires, supporters of the Healthy Forest Initiative say, is proof of the unhealthy state of the forests.

Another reason the old, one-size-fits-all approach of putting out every fire is no longer working well is that different forests need different treatments.

Putting out every fire can cause forests to become “overmature” and vulnerable to insects, such as pine beetles, that can kill thousand of acres of trees and add to the fuel wood piling up.

Some forests, such as the lodgepole forests that surround communities in Eagle County, respond better to thinning.

But thinning and clearing the forests with prescribed burns will take years. Some communities, like Vail, are beginning to take matters into their own hands by implementing homeowner defensible space programs. It’s as simple as clearing trees and brush from around your home to create a buffer zone against potential wildfires.


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