Let me tell you about some of my favorite things this fire season. Not raindrops on roses, although raindrops in general would be good.
First, is people who send fire photos, so we don’t have to worry about copyright or lack photos.
Second, is people who resist the temptation to frame today’s issues as partisan or reflecting battles from the past. The question is what do we need to do today and going forward.
There were a couple of interesting fire stories again in the Denver Post. I think it’s important from the perspective that the Denver Post is thought to be one of the major interior west media outlets.
Here’s one about wildland fire in urban areas, below is an excerpt:
As a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Benight has studied disasters since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and examined evacuees and their psychological adjustments during the massive Hayman fire, which charred nearly 140,000 acres and claimed 133 homes nearly 100 miles from Denver in 2002.
Now, he’s witnessing the psychological impact of a different sort of wildfire — one that has wreaked devastation on the fringe of an urban setting.
“In general, we often live in a sort of lulled state,” Benight said. “The potential threat that’s there when these things push into our world is serious, and it’s real. In our setting, wildfires have been a potential, but they haven’t directly affected a metropolitan area more recently.
“This is a teachable moment.”
The hard lessons will only expand, experts say, largely because of a combination of ongoing growth in wildland areas and climate concerns that provide optimal burn weather.
Kristen Moeller believes in personal responsibility when it comes to living in wildlands such as the area where she and her husband bought their dream house southeast of Conifer in 2003.
They lost it, and most of their possessions, in the Lower North Fork fire in March. And now, even as she navigates the tricky terrain of emotional and financial recovery, she watches with interest and empathy as the hard reality of wildfires sweeps into the urban corridor with the Waldo Canyon blaze.
“It came down the hill — we’re all at risk,” said Moeller, who has reached out to current wildfire victims through her blog Walking Through Fire. “Us mountain people choose to live there. We’re a different breed, and the fires typically stay up with us (in the mountains), but not now. It’s shaking people up.”
Here’s one about the overall problem:
Public policies regarding population growth and forest management are adding to the wildfire problem:
• It costs millions to protect homes in the red zone from wildfires, but homeowners don’t foot that bill exclusively. All taxpayers do. That creates a perverse incentive to build there despite risks.
• A continued population boom in the red zones is pushing homebuilders to higher elevations, where forest conditions increase the chances of more intense fires.
• Rocky Mountain forests have become overgrown and in many cases unhealthy. State and federal forest- management policies call for cutting down excess trees and doing prescribed burns. But the population boom puts pressure on these strategies — people often don’t want to see trees cut or landscapes burned near their homes. That leaves the forests full of highly flammable fuel, waiting for the next fire.
Researchers at the Fort Collins Laboratory of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station reviewed satellite images of three forests with heavy damage from pine beetles that had been mechanically thinned. They found around 150,000 “jack piles” — stacks of dry timber from forest-thinning efforts waiting to be burned.
“There’s little time to treat all those,” says Chuck Rhoades, research biogeochemist at the Fort Collins Laboratory. “A lot of them are probably not going to get burned.”
At least not until a wildfire reaches them.
“If those things burn hot, you’ve created a new fire hazard,” Rhoades says. “You may have just moved the problem around.”
In the wake of the Hayman fire, federal and state foresters increased the area of the forest treated with mechanical-thinning and prescribed-burning projects but say they have hardly scratched the surface of millions of acres of Rocky Mountain forests that need restoration. In the meantime, the increasing population in the woods requires greater protection from wildfires.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General estimated that, between 1998 and 2005, forest managers let burn only 2 percent of wildfires that started naturally. The rest were fought, largely to protect homes in high-risk fire areas — areas the federal government calls Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. But snuffing natural fires allows biomass buildup that can fuel more catastrophic fires.
The fact that the bill for protecting private homes is borne by taxpayers at large “removes the incentives for landowners moving into the WUI to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks,” the Office of Inspector General reported.
Note from Sharon: I thought the recession and recent fires had decreased prices in the red zone. When I drive around certain parts I see lots of homes for sale that have been for sale for years. I wonder where this information comes from about moving up into higher elevations?
Also, it is interesting that they interviewed a research biogeochemist about the probability of piles getting burned. I guess it’s the Rolodex question again.