Mountain Living and How It Can Backfire

While there is a common misconception that wildfires in the west, especially in Colorado’s Front Range, are increasing in severity and frequency, they are actually burning similarly to most historical fires according to CU forestry researcher and professor Tom Veblen.

In the dry and windy western parts of the United States, forest fires are not a rarity. Fires have been necessary for regeneration and growth among many species for centuries, but that doesn’t stop the panic that ensues when fires rage across mountainsides dangerously close to homes. Numerous studies have been done over the years and there are various solutions that are frequently implemented to help keep fires under control, including tree thinning and fire suppression, but to some people the answer seems to be common sense: don’t move to a fire-prone environment if you aren’t willing to adequately prepare for one in advance.

“We need to be very strategic to invest money in places where it’s really going to make a difference, which is right around the home,” Veblen said. “This includes building materials around the house, whether people clean their gutters out, whether people leave their windows open when they leave on the day the fire starts. From a public outreach point of view that’s where we need to put our resources.”

One of the first models studied by researchers, the Southwestern ponderosa pine model, drove a lot of legislation when it came to regulations on fire suppression. That model works well for areas below 7,100 feet but according to a new study in 2014 led by University of Colorado Boulder and Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. and co-authored by Veblen, only applies to less than 20 percent of Colorado’s forests.

For starters, there are many areas in Colorado that do not need to be prepped as extensively as others. Areas in Rocky Mountain National Park, for example the Bear Lake area, are at a much lower risk for surface fires than some of the lower montane zones.

Researchers study tree-ring data to learn the historical patterns of fire severity dating back to the 17th century.

“That kind of vegetation, there’s almost no history of surface fires,” Veblen said. “Those forests only burn under extreme drought which in historical record prior to the last 50 years or so would have been two or three years per century that were dry enough for widespread fires.”

For a short-term period after prominent fires, real-estate patterns tend to steeply decline. After a few years pass however, they rise back up as people seemingly forget the danger that moving into a fire-prone environment entails. But this is not to say that some developments haven’t been made.

“At a local level there has been tremendous progress,” Veblen said.

“I think that within our community here there has been a gradual shift towards greater emphasis on fuel treatments in the wild land urban interface as opposed to spending a lot of money thinning forests in areas distant from homes,” he said.

A lot of this progress during the 1980s, could only be made after educating the public of Boulder that cutting trees to reduce fire hazard was also beneficial for restoring the ecosystem. Out of this realization also came the acceptance of “let-burn” policies, where trees, especially in more distant areas, were allowed to burn.

“Twenty years ago, I’d say there was a high level of ignorance at the national level. Today I’d say there’s much less,” Veblen said.

Progress continues to be made but unfortunately, according to Veblen, Boulder County is going to need to see a lot more loss before people create the change that needs to occur.


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