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The perfect fire

Maia Chavez

For the past two years, the Holy Cross Ranger District has been conducting a study they call the Vail Valley Forest Health Project. This winter, the Ranger District plans to unveil the results of the study to the residents of the Vail Valley. The data could indicate how close Vail-area forests are to optimal conditions for a crown fire like the one that tore through Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The study will not only provide some cold, hard statistics on the state of the local forest, but also pose a question is the local community willing to approve measures that could reduce the riskof such a fire?”The beetle-kill/fire/regrowth cycle has been going on for thousands of years,” says veteran field forester Bob Currie, who has devoted his time to the study since its inception. “It’s a natural, healthy cycle. The trouble is that we’re in an urban interface here. Homes are at risk. If a crown fire starts at Muddy Pass, it’s going to be in Vail inside of 24 hours. That’s lodgepole pine at its wildest and scariest. If drought, pine beetles, and fuels all come together in the right combination, this thing’s going to go up fast.”The object of the study is to create a plan for “defensible space,” a means of treating the forest around the urban interface so that the fire department has a fighting chance of holding such a fire at bay should it occur.The project aims to determine just how much defensible space is necessary in order to minimize the risk to area homes and businesses, and how best to create such defensible space while maintaining forest health and the natural beauty of the landscape. The study will also serve as a kind of social thermometer, testing the waters to see what forestry measures are aesthetically acceptable to Vail’s resident population.”Your first impression of Vail is the scenery, so the visual impact is one of our first priorities in developing a plan for the forest,” Currie says. “It’s about the safety of your home, but it’s also about your legacy what you want to leave for your children and the next generations.”Tom Talbot, technician and wildland coordinator for Vail Fire and Emergency Services, says although he has been fighting fires for 26 years, the issue of creating defensible space for the community became personal for him just recently.”I was in Los Alamos when the homes burned there, and in Glenwood Springs,” he says. “Fighting the fire in Glenwood, I saw children’s toys melting into the porches as those houses burned. I thought, those could have been my kid’s toys and it really hit home for me then.”Talbot says defensible space is not only useful in improving the overall health of the forest, but vital in the fight to save homes and property.”When we watched the fire coming into Los Alamos, it came through the crowns of the trees, moving very fast, and then dropped to the ground and the grasses around the homes,” he says. “The down-fall from the burning crowns was dropping onto shingled roofs, setting the houses on fire.”Talbot says he sees no practical disadvantages to selective thinning. Unlike clear-cutting, he says, thinning preserves the topsoil by leaving behind the root systems that anchor it.”There’s always going to be someone who opposes it,” he says. “But as firefighters our job is to defend homes and property. There has to be a way of meeting halfway, so that in the event of a fire we have a chance at saving these homes.”Currie says the cycle leading up to a crown fire involves a combination of factors over time, including the amount of dead fuel (wood) on the ground, density of stands, species composition, and weather. Another important factor is the pine beetle, which can significantly weaken the forest’s resistance to fire. Depending on the results of the study, prescribed measures for decreasing the risk could include partial removal of fuel on the ground, selective cutting, and clearing of undergrowth.Currie’s stockpile of data is formidable, including statistics on the age and size of trees, growth patterns, fuel on the ground, evidence of previous fires, and patterns of pine beetle infestation. The data is collected on the basis of 500 sample points per area of 2 square miles (1,400 acres), or one point for every 2.8 acres. The data is then fed into computer programs that create models projecting results for a number of thinning scenarios.Partial cutting, Currie says, could not only strategically alter firebehavior within the forest, but also increase its resistance to pine beetle infestation, stimulate the growth of remaining trees, and increase food for wildlife. If approved, the plan would be implemented not all at once but over time. One scenario has the thinning done in stages, at intervals of 20 years.”Silvaculture is a long-term investment,” says Currie. “There’s no quick fix.”As for the pine beetle, thinning could not only slow its current progress but significantly decrease the impact of future infestation. The beetle, he says, communicates by emitting pheromone plumes. Today’s dense, fire suppression-era forests create a cool, still environment under the canopy that is perfect for the transmission of pheromone signals. Thinning the forest, he says, allows heat and wind to penetrate, dispersing the pheromone plumes and impairing the beetles’ ability to find one another in order to procreate.Currie has a test he likes to do. He drives you to a spot on Meadow Mountain from which an old clear-cut, performed in response to a pine beetle infestation in the late ’80s, is clearly visible on an adjacent hillside. He asks you to point out the clear-cut a broad, squarish, unnatural swath of new growth amid a forest of mature lodgepoles. Then he asks you to point out the nearby partial cut. It is almost impossible to see.”That’s the beauty of partial cutting,” he says. “You don’t immediately turn off the people who are at least somewhat open to the idea.”


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