Science Notes

What is Colorado Doing to Address Wildfires?

By Mikkela Blanton

February 2021

The Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction in August 2020. Photo Courtesy of The Colorado Sun.

The Issue

The 2020 wildfire season in Colorado was one of the most apocalyptic on record. More than 625,000 acres burned in wildfires across the state, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history. 

Counties throughout Colorado are facing extreme or exceptional drought, beetle kill has left ill-fated dead trees, and winter thus far into 2021 has hardly felt like winter due to warm temperatures (with the exception of the mid-February arctic blast) and little snow. The combination of these factors is fuel for another catastrophic wildfire season. 

Wildfires cost the state millions of dollars in fire-suppression efforts, take an economic and psychological toll on impacted homeowners, lead to air and water pollution, and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What’s more, the current wait-and-respond model in Colorado isn’t sustainable – rather than being proactive about wildfire management, forces are often mobilized only after a wildfire starts. 

The Science

We know that climate change is exacerbating fire season; what isn’t clear is how to best mitigate forest fires in the wake of climatic events, such as drought and extreme heat. 

While Americans have been putting the light out on fires since the early 1900s thanks to Smokey Bear, today’s fire specialists say “let it burn.” Prescribed burning – a practice in which a fire is set intentionally and then closely monitored and managed – can restore an ecosystem, support biodiversity, and help to reduce the risk of rapidly-spreading uncontrolled fires. 

Indigenous peoples have been practicing controlled burns throughout North America, and the world, for millennia. Such burns promoted the life cycles of various species and contributed to the growth of native species and food sources. Fire suppression policies haven’t just exacerbated the fires we see today, but have also been an assault on cultural burning practices

Although the science and ancient practice support setting more fires as a way to mitigate the type of devastating damage we saw last year, controlled burning is highly contentious, sometimes dangerous, and has even been prohibited at times due to air quality concerns. In areas where human developments are intermingled with wildland vegetation, prescribed burns are especially challenging.

Researchers have found that the most significant barriers to prescribed burns are a lack of adequate funding, too much fire danger, or inadequate staffing – the latter of which has been exacerbated by the uptick in non-prescribed fires, as firefighters working on controlled burns are often pulled off for suppression work. Further, in Colorado, a 2012 prescribed burn got out of control and led to the deaths of three people, resulting in the Colorado State Forest Service being stripped of its authority to engage in prescribed burning. Today, Fire Prevention and Control in our state burns about 12.5 percent of what it once did, despite the fact that the State Forest Service’s Forest Action Plan calls for much more. 

Potential Solutions

Funding wildfire mitigation, prevention, and management is a necessity, and the Polis administration knows it  – Polis’s 2021 budget proposal includes $78 million for mitigating and managing wildfires. While $78 million is no small chunk of change, it’s a drop in the bucket of the $4.2 billion backlog of forestry work that’s necessary to protect people and property from fire. Some experts say that restoring authority to the State Forest Service – which is one of the only state forest services in the nation that can’t conduct prescribed burns – is a big part of the answer, too. 

“We’re paying for wildfires after they happen, rather than investing on the front end,” said Senator Michael Bennet during a Wildfire Summit hosted by Joe Neguse. “We have to change the way the federal government is thinking about this. Incremental changes to the forest-service budget are not going to get us to where we need to be… An incremental approach is not what we need; we need to transform the way that we manage these forests.” 

To help prevent fires from spreading and causing damage, those in fire-prone areas can benefit from education on how to fire-proof and retrofit homes. Scientists, policymakers, and communities should also be in conversation about the downsides of people moving into high-risk forests; some estimates show that population growth in these areas will triple the size of the high-risk interface zone.

“People moving into this wildland-urban interface really ramps up the damages when we do have these uncontrollable fires,” said Senator John Hickenlooper at the Wildfire Summitt. 

Exploring strategies for reducing human-caused fires is also important. While research from Jennifer Balch, Associate Professor of Geography at University of Colorado Boulder, shows that most fires in the mountainous regions of the Western United States are started by lightning, human-caused wildfires are still a concern. When asked about the fact that most fires in Colorado are naturally caused, she explained, “In Colorado, lightning ignitions are concentrated in the mountains. There are a lot of human-started fires along the front range that threaten our homes.” 

We should also be thinking about ways to turn the thermostat down on the planet as a strategy for mitigating severe wildfires, which will include both reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Bottom Line

Colorado had a terrible wildfire season in 2020 that destroyed habitat and homes, took lives, and hampered the quality of life for anyone exposed to what felt like endless plumes of smoke. But 2020’s wildfire season may not be the worst of it if Coloradans don’t start thinking differently about how to mitigate, not just manage, wildfires. 

Additional Resources

We’ll see more fire seasons like 2020 – here’s a strategy for managing our nation’s flammable landscapes (by Jennifer Balch)


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