Climate change, wildland development usher in higher fire risks for Aspen, Roaring Fork Valley | PostIndependent.com

Climate change, wildland development usher in higher fire risks for Aspen, Roaring Fork Valley

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has become road-weary in recent weeks making a roughly 250-mile circuit among three fires eating through tinder-dry landscape near Basalt, Rifle and Meeker.

Earlier this year, flames swept through forestlands and came perilously close to homes near Silverthorne in the Buffalo Mountain Fire. It has added up to an extremely busy fire season on the White River National Forest.

All told, 23 fires have burned about 12,000 acres and counting this summer in just the White River National Forest. It is the second highest acreage charred in the past 20 years, topped only by 43,000 acres burned during the devastating drought summer of 2002. (Some of the fires, such as Lake Christine, also have burned state and private lands to produce larger overall totals.)

Even though this year's White River stats are on the high side of the 20-year history, Fitzwilliams and others in the Colorado forestry and firefighting communities wonder if a "new normal" is being established for fire conditions.

"Colorado used to have a fire season about every 15 years that was significant," Fitzwilliams said late last week while touring the Cabin Lake Fire near Meeker. "Now we're thinking that's more like four to five years."

Three factors are converging.

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Climate change is creating warmer, drier conditions that are drying out tree, brush and grasses to record low moisture levels. Suburbanization of formerly rural areas is placing more homes and other structures in harm's way, in areas known as the wildland-urban interface. Plus, fire suppression has been going on for so many decades in the White River and other national forests in Colorado that fuels have built up and made them susceptible to conflagration — a large wildfire that causes major damage.

"We can control the forestry part," Fitzwilliams said. "We don't have any control over where houses are built or the weather."

Environmental groups have been critical of President Donald Trump's administration for not acknowledging the role climate change is playing in western forest fires. In a teleconference Thursday, Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center presented expert testimony to show the link in Colorado this year.

Heidi Steltzer, a professor of biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango who has studied early snowmelt, discussed how warmer, drier winters help make conditions ripe for wildfires — and how the problem is expected to get worse.

"Since the 1950s, snowpack across Colorado has decreased by at least 20 percent," Steltzer said. "Over the next 50 years, we're expected to see a staggering 60 percent further decline in snowpack. With shorter and more chaotic winters, we're seeing our snow melt earlier and faster, leaving dry earth primed for wildfire."

Deborah Kennard, a professor of environmental science at Colorado Mesa University who teaches courses on fire management and fire ecology, also spoke on Thursday's teleconference. She is concerned about fire spreading to high-elevation forests and ecosystems.

Fitzwilliams avoids politics but will share his observations. The potential for fires hit the high altitude of Summit County, location of the Buffalo Mountain fire, two to three weeks earlier than normal this summer, he said.

The Lake Christine Fire was abnormal in the sense that wildland fires haven't reached higher elevation sub-alpine fir and conifer forests of the middle or upper Roaring Fork Valley for decades. The Panorama Fire in 2002 and Catherine Store Road Fire in 2008 were at lower elevations and within different ecosystems.

This year provided a one-two punch of low snowpack and lack of summer monsoons. If that's a trend rather than an anomaly, the fire season in Colorado will get more intense — with not only more fires, but regular health concerns because of poor air quality from smoke.

Fitzwilliams said the explosive growth of Colorado's Western Slope is making it more complicated — and expensive — to fight fires.

"I'm estimating we'll spend $30 million on the White River this year putting out fires," he said.

There have been five Type 2 incident management teams called to the White River National Forest so far this year to manage firefighting efforts. Those are large administrative teams with a broad diversity of skills to manage large numbers of firefighters. It's believed there were never more than three Type 2 teams on the forest in any prior year.

The firefighting effort in the Lake Christine Fire was so intense because there was power grid infrastructure and Basalt's municipal water springs to protect in addition to hundreds of homes in Basalt, El Jebel, Missouri Heights and the Fryingpan Valley.

The Cabin Lake Fire is in a more rural area so fewer structures are threatened but if the fire grows and forces an extended forest closure into hunting season, the Meeker area economy could be devastated. The fire has forced the closure of forestlands that are prime elk habitat.

The Cache Creek Fire southwest of Rifle threatens homes and disruption of oil and gas production,

The only other fire so far this year that threatened homes to the extent of Lake Christine was the Buffalo Mountain Fire. The Forest Service and partners had undertaken vegetation management on 350 acres of national forest on Buffalo Mountain adjacent to subdivisions between 2010 and 2014. That slowed the fire and helped protect the structures.

"The Buffalo fire could have been catastrophic," Fitzwilliams said.

Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson feels the same way about the Lake Christine Fire.

"We're more than fortunate," he said. "We should have lost 100 homes."

A vegetation management project in the mid-2000s on federal lands east of the El Jebel Mobile Home Park slowed the fire and assisted firefighters battling to save it the night of July 4, according to Thompson.

Elsewhere, there have been sporadic attempts to beef up defensible space. Snowmass Village homeowners' associations have made a stellar effort at thinning fuels around houses, he said. The town of Basalt has vowed to take steps after its close call this summer. Eagle County makes new development mitigate for wildfire.

The Lake Christine Fire has motivated private property owners. The fire department is receiving regular requests from property owners who want an assessment of what they can do to make their land and homes more defensible.

"There's nothing like flames or smoke in your neighborhood to make people pay attention to their own property," Thompson said.

The department is making those assessments but much of the recommended work must wait until the fire threat abates so chainsaws and other equipment can be used.

Thompson agreed with Fitzwilliams that development in the wildland-urban interface complicates firefighting. There were hundreds of homes in that zone in the Basalt Regional Fire Protection District in the 1980s. Now there are thousands of homes built on private lands abutting public lands.

Thompson estimated that only a very small percentage of homeowners have undertaken the steps to make their homes and property defensible.

Firefighters will have to write off some of those homes for safety reasons under the wrong circumstances — fast moving fire in pinion and juniper forest with only dead-end streets for ingress and egress, Thompson said.

So, if the Forest Service undertakes more forest thinning, private landowners create defensible space, and towns and counties toughen their land use codes, will it make any difference if the climate keeps changing?

Thompson said if the drought persists in the Roaring Fork Valley — with 2019 matching 2018 — he is worried about a California-style "mega-fire."

Fitzwilliams voiced similar concerns about the longer duration of fire seasons — and the wear-and-tear it creates for firefighters and regular Forest Service staff. In a year like this, resources are spread thin and assigned to where the risk is greatest.

"The problem is not going away any time soon," Fitzwilliams said.

TOP FIRE SEASONS

Here are the five most prolific years for fires on the White River National Forest since 1998. Acreages are just for lands burned in national forest, not BLM, state or private lands.

2002 54 fires 43,084 acres

2018 23 fires 12,000 acres*

2016 41 fires 4,834 acres

2010 93 fires 1,474 acres

2017 39 fires 1,117 acres

Source: U.S. Forest Service; * so far this year