Standing atop Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain, the enormity of the task of protecting Boulder County from a catastrophic wildfire becomes clear.
Longs Peak shimmers in the afternoon haze at the far northwestern corner of the county. Due west, the Continental Divide rears into the sky.
And between is a carpet of millions upon millions of trees, a dense forest of green and brown that is at once one of the county’s biggest assets and one of its biggest threats.
The task of keeping a wildfire from consuming those trees, and the thousands of houses hidden among them, is overwhelming. It’s also a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages about
160,000 acres in and around Boulder County.
“The safest, most effective wildland fire management strategy is predicated on an aggressive fuels reduction program using a variety of mitigation methods,” the Forest Service declared in its 2005 national fire operations action plan.
Targeting the red zones
Wildfire poses a number of risks in Boulder County.
First, there are the homes scattered in what’s called the wildland-urban interface. There are also the environmental consequences that would come with a catastrophic fire, from sediment runoff to the loss of wildlife habitat. And then there’s the fear that tourists would stop visiting hills that are blackened and charred.
Wildfire experts from the Forest Service and other agencies acknowledge that Front Range residents “get excited” — and not in a good way — when they see smoke rising over the forest.
And with good reason. Forest densities in some parts of Boulder County are up to 1,000 trees per acre. Historically, gladed pine stands commonly had as few as 25 trees an acre.
Heavy “fuel loads” mean that when a fire starts, it can quickly leap into the tops of the trees and race across miles of forest in a short time. That’s what happened in the October 2003 Overland Fire near Jamestown.
The 3,869-acre area where the fire burned had already been identified by the Forest Service as prime for thinning and other mitigation. When the wildfire took off, flames leapt from tree to tree, and might have reached Lyons had an early snowstorm not snuffed them out.
The Forest Service is now working to reduce fire danger in that area. It’s also launching a treatment project on 2,657 acres along the South St. Vrain River near the communities of Allenspark, Meeker Park, Raymond and Riverside.
In that project, the number of trees on public lands near homes will be reduced. The Forest Service is taking pains to limit the number of new roads it will build to allow heavy machinery into the area, and is instead focusing on treating areas along existing roads.
Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables, who is in charge of the Forest Service in five states, said the agency decides where to treat based on where the most danger is posed.
“We take those red zones — the areas where we have the highest values at risk, like property and water quality — and we say we’re going to put our dollars where we’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck,” said the Denver-based Cables.
He added: “Some subdivisions are more willing at this point, are really ready. That’s a factor. You have to use that money most effectively. Where you have willing neighbors, particularly if they’re willing to treat their land, then you’ve really got a partnership.”
Mountain residents who recognize the danger to their homes appear willing to work with the Forest Service. Allenspark-area resident Jon Bell, for instance, welcomed any help in protecting his home.
“I believe that the single greatest threat to my personal real estate and the general well-being of the area is catastrophic fire,” Bell wrote to the Forest Service. “I appreciate any money and manpower which the USFS provides toward getting the forests thinned. There is a huge amount of work to be done.”
A daunting task
Under typical conditions, two workers with chainsaws can “treat” about an acre of forest a day. A Hydro-Axe, a bucket-loader-sized machine mounted with a lawnmower-style chipper, can clear about 5 acres a day. Two sawyers with chainsaws cost about $300 an acre, while the Hydro-Axe costs easily double that.
But the scale of Colorado’s forests makes the work monumental. The Forest Service’s Boulder Ranger District alone is responsible for managing 160,000 acres of public lands, with about 87,000 acres of private land scattered in between.
The Front Range Fuels Treatment Partnership, a consortium of state, local and federal local agencies, conservation groups and nonprofits dedicated to reducing fire danger, has identified 510,000 acres in need of mitigation along the Front Range.
Mitigation treatments range from clearing and chipping underbrush all the way up to clear-cutting fire breaks along ridgelines or using prescribed fires to burn through an area.
Boulder County open space workers use many of the same techniques to try to reduce fire danger, although the amount of land they work on is much less. Still, the small projects have an equally important effect.
On July 22, for example, a lightning-sparked fire consumed about three-tenths of an acre at Heil Valley Ranch west of Hygiene. Firefighters who responded to the blaze said the fire in the heavily timbered area would have burned much more had county crews not previously cleared out underbrush and cut down trees in the area.
According to the commander of the firefighting efforts, the fire had been burning for up to a week with little intensity, barely singing the ponderosa pines adapted to survive such fires.
“For the last several years, there’s been a large focus on Heil,” said Ron Stewart, the county’s parks and open space director. “I think we look at the areas where we can have the most impact in terms of restoring a healthy forest.”
He added: “The fire that starts in the middle of nowhere can suddenly be next to your house.”
Mitigation work cannot be performed everywhere, however, and foresters must be judicious in selecting projects.
For years, money was the major obstacle to getting work done. Mitigation work is generally back-breaking labor performed out of the public eye. But wildfires capture public imagination, and there is rarely trouble finding money to fight them with engines, bulldozers, firefighting crews, helicopters and airplanes, even though the costs of both are similar.
According to Front Range forest managers, they spent an average $309 an acre to treat 33,378 acres in 2004. In comparison, the cost of fighting fires varies widely. It cost $103 an acre to fight the 2003 Overland Fire near Jamestown, but $230 an acre for the Hayman Fire.
The 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire in the Four Corners region cost $564 an acre to fight.
Those figures, however, don’t include damage to private property, the loss of natural resources or restoration work.
Historically, firefighting money came mostly from national accounts, while fire prevention and thinning money generally came from the local rangers’ budget.
That’s changed some in the past few years, but the differences in costs remain staggering.
In 2003, fighting fires on federal lands along the Front Range cost $45 million, with another $24 million spent on rehabilitation. In contrast, the Forest Service spent $7.9 million in 2004 to treat 16,625 acres along the Front Range.
The disparity in funding between firefighting and prevention grows larger when money to fight active fires is taken from funds set aside to reduce fire danger.
According to a 2004 report by the federal General Accounting Office, from 1999 to 2003, the Forest Service transferred $81.3 million out of fire management accounts to fight fires around the country. But when the fires were finally extinguished, only 75 percent of the money was repaid.
Such transfers, while justified when a fire is raging out of control, have hazardous repercussions.
In another case cited by the GAO, in 2003 some $111,000 earmarked for cutting down 150 acres of trees infested with pine beetles in Colorado’s White River National Forest was instead spent on firefighting.
“As a result, the infestation grew to about 230 acres, killing additional trees and raising the cost of the project about $24,000 more than previously estimated,” the report said. “Further, there is a chance that the beetle population will spread to the point where it cannot be contained at any cost and where tree mortality will increase dramatically, affecting up to 6,000 acres.”
Full-grown standing trees killed by beetles pose an extreme fire danger.
Cables, the regional forester, said the Forest Service has recognized it needs to make changes. The National Fire Plan of 2000, along with the Healthy Forests Initiative of 2002, began funneling extra money and staff to front-line fire prevention and forest mitigation.
According to Cables, the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire in 2002 spurred the Forest Service locally into action. The Hayman Fire is the largest recorded wildfire in Colorado history, costing $42 million to fight. It destroyed more than 130 homes and devastated an important metro-area watershed along the South Platte River.
“It was a wake-up call,” Cables said. “We said we’re going to have to do something about this.
“Certain fires are bad. They are not healthy for anything. When folks see that, and see it in proximity to their house or the area they want to recreate, it concerns them. That concern has really driven political action, has driven funding, driven change in our management.”
But because of the size of the bureaucracy, those changes have come slowly. And not everyone is sold on the need for wide-scale forest treatments. Dave Kuntz, who owns a cabin in Meeker Park, said in a letter to the Forest Service that he’s skeptical that mitigation of public lands will make much of a difference.
“I do not agree ... that the proposed (St. Vrain Fuels Reduction) project will increase the ecological health of the forest or have a major impact on changing fire dynamics of a wildfire,” Kuntz wrote. “Private property owners have the responsibility to ensure that their property is protected from wildfire impacts. The USFS cannot provide that protection on a scale that will make much difference on a landscape level.”
Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.