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Local agencies push for fire resilient forests

The St. Vrain Forest Health Partnership is just one of the collaborative groups bringing healthier forest management to Colorado

An excursion to Cal-Wood Education Center on September 13, led by Left Hand Watershed Center and Cal-Wood staff, highlighted the severity of the burn from last year’s wildfire along with the flourishing vegetation in the time since. But the primary focus was to discuss the new St. Vrain Forest Health Partnership, a multi-agency initiative to address healthier forests and watersheds in the area.

Nestled in the Front Range northwest of Jameston, CO, the Cal-Wood Education Center sits at roughly 7,000 feet elevation. The 1,200 acre property is devoted to outdoor education experiences, particularly for urban and low-income youth who would otherwise not have the opportunity. The nonprofit education center was already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of school field trips from around the area — vital sources of the organization's funding — when the wildfire struck. 

Less than a year ago — midday on October 17, 2020 — a column of smoke appeared on the property. Cal-Wood’s staff, including Natural Resource Manager Angie Busby, were worried it would be written off as more smoke from the Cameron Peak or East Troublesome fires burning to the north and west. Busby urged staff and visitors to make multiple 911 calls to be sure that the immediacy of the danger would be broadly known.

Independent investigations would later narrow it down to a quarter-acre plot, though why the fire started remains a mystery. What is known is that the fire burned quickly, a furious 35 acres per minute for the first three-and-a-half hours, eventually claiming 606 acres of the property, according to Busby. The Cal-Wood fire burned a total of 10,113 acres and 26 structures were lost or damaged in the burn, according to Boulder County’s final report. The fire was 100% contained almost a month later on November 14.

Between 1980 and 2011, Colorado had a total of 45 fires that burned 242,457 acres and destroyed 476 structures, according to a U.S. Forest Service report on Boulder County’s 2012 Four-Mile Canyon Fire. By contrast, between April and December 2020, almost 700,000 acres were ravaged by 25 separate wildfires in Colorado. 

The largest fire in Colorado history, Cameron Peak burned through 208,913 acres in Larimer County and resulted in 469 residential and commercial structures destroyed from August 13 to December 2, 2020, the cause unknown. Just one fire from 2020 nearly equaled 30 years of wildfires in Colorado.

Fires that burn hotter, larger and longer are becoming more prevalent throughout the western U.S., as temperatures rise and drought conditions continue without abatement from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest. Though climate change contributes to these conditions, the relationship between fire and healthy forest management changed significantly at the federal level in the past hundred years, according to Busby.

The 1910 Fires, also known as the “Big Blowup,” saw more than 1,700 fires burn 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho and Washington. In the decades that followed, the relationship between healthy fires and fire suppression grew strained. Starting in the late 80s after a series of fires in Yellowstone National Park, mandates were put in place that fires would not be allowed to run their natural course, instead being fully suppressed. 

Without fire though, forests can become over-crowded and the density gives fuel to unhealthy fires like the ones filling western skies with smoke. According to Tony Cheng, a professor at Colorado State University and director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, trees like ponderosa and lodge-pole pines are fire-adapted — resistant to low-intensity ground level fires. Their natural ecology has been threatened by fire suppression as less adaptive trees begin to crowd the forests.

“Because all fire is suppressed, conditions lead to accelerated and intensified fires,” Cheng said in a fire resilience seminar on September 14. 

Of note, as brought up by both Busby and Left Hand Fire District Chief Chris O’Brien, was that where the CalWood fire ran into the areas that recovered from the 2003 Overland fire, there was no fuel to be found. The fire laid down and was easy to contain, O’Brien said.

Healthy management of forests include clearing trees like Douglas firs  — trees that aren’t fire-adapted and provide easy fuel that allows fires to climb off the ground and into the crowns. Once a crown fire starts, it can easily be taken by the high-intensity winds and carried further. Without natural fires or prescribed burns, forest density has led to more intense fires like the ones seen throughout the western U.S. in the past decades.

The intensity of these fires create long-term problems — not just in the immediate threat to lives, homes and the land, but to the air and water as well. Wildfires burn hot enough that it traumatizes the soil, causing it to become hydrophobic and repel water. Hydrophobic soil increases the risk of flooding with rain, storms and snowmelt, sending debris down hill to cause hazards like the July 29 mudslide that struck Glenwood Canyon.

Forest restoration and management is beset by any number of issues however. The forests of Colorado are a mosaic of land ownership; private homes and ranching interests sit side by side with federally-owned lands and educational centers like Cal-Wood. Collaborations like the St. Vrain Forest Health Partnership, along with the Boulder County Fireshed, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative, hope to promote cross-boundary and interagency solutions to forest management. 

Pace is an issue as well, as the dense and untreated forests of the Front Range and into the Rockies that have been untouched by fire or trimming are at risk of another massive fire like Cameron Peak or East Troublesome. The forest management will need to happen at a landscape-scale in order to meet the scale of potential disturbances, Cheng said.

Running like an ash-thick stream through everything is the issue of funding. The cost in labor, equipment and time to manage the forest through prescribed fire and thinning is increasingly steep. According to Angie Gee, District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service Boulder Ranger District, funding for staffing and management has shifted more toward fighting fires than controlling them. With more effort and money spent suppressing fires, there is less available to proactively manage forests. 

According to the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, the cost for restoring just the land after the CalWood fire — not any of the structures lost — totaled around $6 million. FEMA disaster funds and other sources have helped address some of the costs, while other agencies have stepped in to fill the gap. The Community Foundation of Boulder issued $874,168 in grant funding as part of their 2020 Fires Relief Fund.

The priorities have begun to shift though and agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, or USFS, are using research to utilize healthy fires to start restoring western forests. The next big step is bringing in a process started from the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, led by the USFS. Public engagement opportunities, environmental impact analysis and funding can help provide channels and support to collaborations like the St. Vrain Forest Health Partnership through the NEPA process.

Restoration work has already begun in the burned areas, including Cal-Wood and Heil Valley Ranch in Boulder County. The work to create healthier forests and reduce the risks of more intense fires like those seen in 2020 will require cooperation at all levels going forward.