A friend was in Colorado this weekend (visiting from the Plains) and saw the flames and smoke from the Four-Mile Canyon fire above Boulder. Facebook comments followed her post on it was bad/sad because people were loosing their homes. One person did say ‘ its good in a way’. I said I’d like to chat on why it is good, so here’s the scoop. I should preface my comments with a disclaimer – while my facts and reasoning are science based, nature is not black and white, literally and figuratively. You can ask 5 foresters how to manage a specific landscape and you’ll likely get 5 different approaches based on their perspective.
God’s nature was designed with many intricate processes that work together in balance. Like spider Webs of interrelated actions and reactions that keep it connected and balanced. A landscape was designed to have a mosaic of meadows, forests, brush, water for wildlife to have all their needs met. A forest has many stages of growth and decline to keep the balance of cover and feeding areas for various wildlife. Nature’s design kept the forest in check. Lower elevation pine forests have frequent low-intensity fires to keep the number of trees at an optimum growing level for the trees to be healthy and the wildlife’s needs. Higher elevation pine and spruce-fir forests have infrequent high intensity stand-replacing fires. Insects and diseases work as one of the balances taking a handful of trees here and there naturally creating a mosaic within the forest.
Man has interrupted nature’s cycles in many ways. We stopped all wildfire for a long time. We could mimic what fire did by managing the forest with thinnings and harvests, utilizing the wood for buildings, furniture and paper and such. But then ‘environmentalists’ stopped nearly all the logging on public lands. So forests grew unchecked and got out of balance. Insects and diseases went from maintenance levels to epidemic levels in many areas. A beetle as small as a grain of rice reached such proportions that 800,000 acres of pinon pine trees died in New Mexico and its cousin killed even more acres than that of ponderosa pine in Arizona. Another cousin bark beetle has been killing millions of acres of trees in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and some in Nebraska. The epidemic of beetles in all these places were working to get nature back in balance.
While man was suppressing wildfire, they were also moving further into the forests, higher into the mountains to live amongst the trees. So even when foresters and wildfire specialists wanted to let the wildfires burn for natures’ sake, they couldn’t because of the homes, cities and infrastructure that support them. Where man and forests meet, the wildland urban interface, can be made less risky by reducing the trees and other vegetaion around the homes. Sometimes it is enough to save the home, sometimes not, depending on the fire’s intensity and the wind behind it.
Los Alamos, New Mexico had a fire sweep through northern areas of the town on May 10, 2000, selectively taking 200 homes. I accompanied the National Guard Commander a few days later through town and tried to answer his questions on fire behavior. Of course, wildfire is by definition a fire that burns in wildland fuels (forests, woodlands and brush). Streets, homes and other buildings can effect a fire’s course like topography can, funneling wind and flames like a saddle between mountains. When wind fanned flames reach an opening wider than the flame, the fire typically drops to the ground and lessens in intensity. So thinning around the home and having fire-resistant plants/landscaping and keeping the fire wood pile away from the house are things that reduce the risk to that home during a wildfire.
But many people don’t thin or landscape in a fire-safe manner. They think the fire fighters will save their house no matter what. Given enough time in front of an approaching wildfire, homes or entire neighborhoods in the woods will be assessed (if they haven’t already been assessed). If it is not safe for personnel to be in the neighborhood, no one will be stationed there to fight the fire. Planes or helicopters may be able to drop slurry or water to ‘retard’ the fire around the homes, but there is no guarantee that a home can be saved, even ones that have had preventative measures taken.
I fear I’m rambling, so more later…..I’ll dig out some photos.