Fire in the forest: The natural way of things
Summit County correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When some friends and I considered camping at the base of Mount Elbert last weekend, we hesitated, thinking of how cold – physically and psychologically – an evening outdoors without fire could be.
What with the Dillon Ranger District’s fire ban still in effect and the climate being so dry, we figured the same ban would be in place near Leadville.
We were shocked, and pleasantly surprised, when we discovered that fire was a go in the San Isabel National Forest.
I wondered why there would be such a difference in fire protocol in areas so relatively close.
We didn’t worry too much, though. We shrugged our shoulders, picked up firewood and made sure we had enough water to put the fire out. Our goal was to be careful, regardless of the announced fire danger.
Given my personal question and that it’s National Wildfire Prevention Week coming to a close, I figured this Wild Colorado is the right forum to take a look at wildfire potential in the Summit County area.
I’ve heard Sen. Dan Gibbs say: “Whether it’s pine-beetle kill or green trees, we are prone to fires.”
I’m sure we’ve all thought about that concept, what with choosing to live in and amongst the forest. We have the “wildland-urban interface” surrounding us, and with it, we’re constantly living in a forest-fire red zone – mountain pine beetle or not.
With forest comes fire, because “it’s just the way the forest works,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Patrick Thrasher said.
He explained that forests are fire dependent and fire-adaptive ecosystems. Whether it’s fire caused by lightning or fire caused by humans, wildfires help some plants spread their seeds, help create diverse habitats for wildlife and open up soil nutrients for other vegetation to grow.
And fire doesn’t just occur in forests with the overwhelming amounts of brown, gray and red lodgepole pine trees we see on our mountainsides. Before we humans decided fire was a destructive force, wildfire was common in green tree areas with dead wood scattered within. Generally, it’s enough fuel to keep the fire going and revitalize the soil, but not enough to scorch it – which is a threat represented by the vast amounts of dead and dying timber in today’s Colorado forests.
In the absence of nature’s rounds of good fire – which aren’t exactly tame – the forest matures and creates a closed canopy that shades the ground and ensures vegetation on the forest floor doesn’t grow. When other plants can’t grow, soil nutrients are locked. Also, the canopy prevents sunlight and moisture, which also help other plants’ growth – subsequently impacting wildlife habitat diversity.
“The greater the diversity, the healthier the ecosystem is going to be,” Thrasher said, adding that diversity doesn’t just help wildlife. It helps trees, too, because diversity in plant life creates natural breaks in the spread of disease and other invasions, such as the pine beetle.
“It’s not a matter of if it will happen,” Thrasher said of today’s wildfire potential. “It’s a matter of when it will happen.”
The pine beetle isn’t an unnatural part of Colorado’s forests, but it is unusual to see the scale of epidemic spreading outward from Grand Lake in Grand County. Drought, same-aged stands and warmer-than-average winters have contributed to the beetle’s population growth and ability to attack more trees.
“These factors together have created a perfect storm situation that has resulted in epidemic levels of activity,” Thrasher said, adding that years of natural wildfire suppression has helped contribute to the situation.
Summit County, being relatively close to Grand County, was affected by the pine beetle earlier than many other areas. Many officials say the pine beetle has run its course in this part of the White River National Forest and that it’s up to various mitigation efforts already largely under way to insulate residential property tucked into the forest. In the depths of the forest, it’s likely any fire will burn – and burn hot.
Which is why fire dangers can vary, even in places as close as Frisco and Leadville, Thrasher said.
He estimated that the San Isabel National Forest may say the fire danger is less than the Dillon Ranger District because there’s more threat in Summit County to residential property. If there’s more at stake with a fire burning, the danger level might be pegged higher.
Thrasher said there are still other contributing factors.
The White River National Forest stretches from Rifle to Summit County, he said. In that stretch are various elevations, with different precipitation levels and different vegetation. From one side of the mountain to the next, conditions could be different, resulting in varying fire dangers.
Also, jurisdictions use national and regional trends to set fire danger, Thrasher said. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is the central headquarters for officials to find information about how many wildfires are burning across the nation, how many resources are dedicated to fighting those fires, and what the fire potential is in other areas.
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