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Ready to burn

Cliff Thompson

Owens and members of his cabinet attended, briefly, a meeting of the state Forestry Advisory Board held at the ski resort’s Beano’s Cabin. The meeting was designed to further monitor the state of Colorado’s forests, as well as examine what the state’s driest year ever has meant to the fire danger. Owens is on a three-day tour of the state.

“If we love our forests, we better do a better job of managing them,” Owens said. “People who say “do nothing’ are condemning those forests to catastrophic fires.”

More than 100 years of fire suppression on public and private land has allowed immense amounts of fuelwood to pile up, creating stressed forest ecosystems that are out of balance. The Colorado State Forest Service is assessing the health of the various forest ecosystems throughout the state so proper plans can be made to restore their health.

Before Mankind intervened and suppressed them, fires would regularly sweep forests clean of fuelwood and rejuvenate forest growth, resulting in 70 percent of the trees in Colorado’s forests being of one age class. That makes them less vigorous and more prone to attacks by insects and fire.

Eagle County typical

Nearly 35,000 acres of trees in Eagle County – much of it within the sprawling 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest – are affected by a pine beetle epidemic. Pine beetles, considered a symptom of an unhealthy ecosystem, Forest Service entomologist Roy Mask said.

Those dead trees provide fuel for fires, and that accumulation of fuelwood is the danger. Under current drought conditions, the fuels could create a catastrophic fire that would burn everything in its path. Forest managers want to create an environment where there is less fuel and correspondingly lower-intensity fires that are more manageable.

This year, the state’s snowpack is averaging 11 percent of normal, deepening a drought in the making for the last four years. Fuelwood, by forests, had a moisture content of between 6 and 10 percent. Cut lumber at a lumber yard, for example, typically has a moisture content of 12 percent.

Owens used strong words to describe the situation.

“It’s the worst (water year) in the state’s history,” the governor said.

It’s all about money

The Forestry Advisory Board, meanwhile, is focusing its efforts on the urban/wild interface, or “red zone,” areas where dwellings meet the forest. And board members acknowledge it boils down to money.

The numbers can be staggering, too. For example, it can cost anywhere from $8 to more than $500 per acre to help restore forest health, said Rich Homann, fire officer for the Colorado State Forest Service.

“It’s taken our forests 100 years to get into the condition they’re in,” Homann said. “It’s an explosive condition.”

But that’s relatively inexpensive when compared to the cost of suppressing a large wildfire that can cost $1 million a day.

So far this year there have been 486 reportable fires that have burned 31,000 acres with five of those classified as “significant” fires. The state has already spent $4.2 million fighting fires this year, and firefighting coffers could be drained by the next fire, he said.

While the state can tap emergency funding when that happens, the burned acreage this year is already what typically is experienced in an entire fire season.

In the meantime, the focus is on the urban/wild interface, of which there are 6.3 million acres statewide inhabited by nearly 1 million people in 474,000 housing units, Homan said. Eagle County has a sizable area of red zone, although local statistics were not presented at the meeting.

Chain saws again

State Forester Jim Hubbard said logging, which has greatly diminished in area forests, has to become part of the picture again. As politically and aesthetically unpalatable as that may be, that will stimulate forest ecosystems. Sixty percent of the aspen in Colorado are in decline because there have been no fires to inject change into the fire-dependant ecosystems of area forests, he said.

“You have to cut those trees,” Hubbard said.

Just north of Vail in the Booth Creek Valley, that’s exactly what’s happening. Crews this summer will be thinning aspen stands, stacking the logs and burning the wood in winter while fire danger is at its lowest. The area had been slated for a controlled burn, but that approach has been deemed inappropriate for the site by Cal Wettstein, Holy Cross district ranger.

Restoring forests ecosystems to health is part politics, money, science and luck, participants say.

“The process we have now does not work,” said Eagle County Commissioner and Forestry Board member Tom Stone of the old management practices. “We’re (the board) examining a number of alternatives.”

Forging the political will will take some time. But more than that, it will take money.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Homann said.

“Eventually it will become a funding issue,” Stone added.

The governor has applied for federal emergency funds and has asked the state be placed on a disaster list that would qualify the state to receive the funds.


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