SATURdAy, JULy 7, 2012
Roberts wants statewide fire plan A decade after wake-up call, senator decries slow progress
By KimBerly Benedict Journal Staff Writer Sitting in a hard plastic chair in the Mancos High School performing arts center Monday evening, state Sen. Ellen Roberts, RDurango, struggled not to cry when talking about the impact of fire on individual lives. Roberts is intimately acquainted with the fierce power and horrible consequences of wildfire. Ten years ago, Roberts and her family watched the Missionary Ridge fire burn closer and closer to their home. For two weeks they dealt with the stress of a pre-evacuation notice followed by a harrowing week of evacuation, wondering whether their home had
survived the fire. The home survived, but Roberts has not forgotten the lessons learned by the residents of Durango that year A decade later, and now a state senator, Roberts is hoping the devastating fires that have ravaged Colorado this year will impart some of the same lessons to her colleagues in the Legislature and begin to bring change to forest management in the state. “In Durango, we got a huge wake-up call 10 years ago and now the Front Range is getting that same wake-up call this year,” Roberts said. “We are seeing the consequences of the poor health of our forests and we really need a statewide policy change in terms of management to deal with the
fire issues we are seeing.” Though other areas of the state have been victims of fire, Roberts said it is always curious to her when Front Range legislators and residents don’t see the need for policy change. The answer, she said, often comes down to numbers. “I wonder why, 10 years later, we haven’t changed anything about how we manage the forest and how we confront fire risk,” Roberts said. “Then I realize it is because only 12 percent of the population lives in these rural areas that see these issues and 88 percent of the state population lives between Fort Collins and Pueblo.” This year, Front Range urban-dwellers have become closely acquainted
with wildfire, as the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires consumed more than 106,000 acres of forest. Unlike the local Weber Fire, from which all major structures were saved and no one was injured, the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires consumed 605 homes and killed three people. That is in addition to this year’s early fire, the Lower North Fork Fire, which destroyed or damaged 23 homes and also killed three people. Roberts called it a “hard and tragic education.” “In a short time, the state has learned how mismanagement can have catastrophic ramifications,” Roberts said. Roberts was tapped to chair a panel investigating the Lower North Fork Fire,
a state prescribed burn that blossomed out of control. Recommendations from the panel, including possible legislation, are due by the end of the year, according to The Denver Post. Roberts said the confluence of the formation of the panel and the massive fires burning in the state have created a situation where perhaps action can be taken. Specifically, Roberts hopes prescribed burns will take a much more prominent place in forest management techniques, noting they are an “essential tool in land management.” She said the U.S. Forest Service has been in discussions with the state regarding the relaxation of air quality requirements to allow for more prescribed burning.
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Restoration efforts planned for next year
did. The fire raged through the canyon, but when it reached the end of the canyon, it died. It had done what was needed, so it stopped. That area needed to be cleaned, so it cleaned itself. Fire is powerful.” In past years, however, fire has been viewed as a power to harness and a force that must submit to the technology and machinery utilized by societies intent on extinguishing flames in the forest. A reduction in thinning operations and prescribed burns has left forests choked with fuel, ready to ignite at the slighted provocation. Monique Rocca, an associate professor of wildland fire science at Colorado State University, says a lack of fire on the landscape has led to untenable situations in terms of wildfire po-
tential and multiple management strategies are to blame. “We have seen fire exclusion, not allowing the forest to burn, over the last century,” Rocca said, in a phone interview on Friday, June 29. “There has also been a reduction of grazing and a changing in logging policies, and all those have resulted in a more dense forest. If fire is allowed to burn the forest naturally, often it does not burn hot enough to kill the trees. However, when the understory becomes so thick and creates ladder fuels that allow fire to reach the trees, you lose trees and you get severe fires, like what we are seeing across the nation.” The U.S. Forest Service is working to alter forest management to include more prescribed burning and thinning, in an effort to cut back on the number
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of massive wildfires that sweep across the forest. Restoration efforts are planned for next year for nearly 4 million acres of forest in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota and Colorado, many focused on trees killed by beetle infestations, according to The Associated Press. Forest officials believe such efforts will reduce the cost of fire suppression in such areas by up to 50 percent. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told The Associated Press that forests must be restored to a natural state, one in which fire is part of the landscape and can be managed, not suppressed. In that situation, natural fires will allow the forest to clean itself, renewing the cycle and process that used to be seen in wild places. Such fires, public lands managers hope, will prevent the severe blazes that
lead to soil sterilization, seed destruction and severe erosion. However, forest officials caution that fire will always be present in the forest. “Everybody has to keep in mind that fire will play a huge significant role in our landscape for the rest of time,” Southwestern Regional Forester Corbin Newman told The Associated Press. “Sometimes people think through either restoration or suppression we can just make fires go away. We have to remind folks we’re just trying (to) put fire back into its natural processes and cycles as opposed to what we’re seeing in today’s world.” In regard to the local fire, Henry said the Weber blaze was a best-case scenario. “We’ve saved the homes and structures and yet the landscape has been allowed to purge itself,” he
said. “It will come back and it will be healthier than it was before. It may be hard to understand, but this is good. Fire is good.” Reach Kimberly Benedict at firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, devastating fires will continue to burn with a consensus that action must be taken, Roberts said. “It takes political will to move forward,” Roberts said. “I don’t think we’ve had that before but I think this year may be the catalyst to bring about that change. People have to understand that Mother Nature will do this if we don’t do this for ourselves.“ Reach Kimberly Benedict at email@example.com.
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