Danger in the woods: 40 percent of national forests overgrown

Posted: September 19, 2012

Source: Denver Post

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Forest Service boldly announced a goal of eradicating hazardously overgrown forests nationwide by2015.

That goal is long gone.

The threat to Colorado homes in 2013, it now appears, will likely be as high as ever. Forest restoration and bush clearance have lagged even as new housing is built in threatened areas. And, for a variety of reasons, little progress was made this year in reducing the fire danger.

Instead, 2012 saw a drastic change in Forest Service policy. Officials say the shift was done for just one year because of the unusual emergency but that, nonetheless, the overall picture remains one of stretched resources, dry woodlands and endangered homes.

From the first days of spring, 2012 looked like a potentially disastrous year for wildfires. Winter had brought scant snow to the Rocky Mountains. The summer forecast: hot and dry.

What almost nobody knew, though, was that the Forest Service had determined it might not have enough people and equipment to control the year’s wildfires.

At its Washington headquarters, those fears led Forest Service deputy chief Jim Hubbard to issue a May 25 directive to agency field offices:

Fight all fires unless given special permission.

Seventeen years of Forest Service policy, decreeing that fires are a natural and necessary feature of the forest ecosystem, were reversed in a two-page memo. In 2012, the agency couldn’t take the chance of letting them burn, and it couldn’t devote resources to restoration or clearance.

“It looked like a fire year that would exceed our resource capacity to respond,” Hubbard said in an interview. “We didn’t have the resources to cover long-duration events.”

Hubbard’s fire-suppression directive came six years after a federal audit concluded with an ominous warning about the dangers lurking in the nation’s overgrown forests.

At current rates of treatment, it would take 60 to 90 years to restore healthy conditions, reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfires for firefighters and homeowners, the audit found. Meanwhile, in fire-prone areas of the western Rocky Mountains, 2.2 million homes were expected to exist by 2030 — a 40 percent increase.

That alarm was sounded by the agency overseeing the Forest Service — the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gaining ground

Forest Service officials took the warning to heart. For the next six years, they seemed to be gaining ground. Each year, they treated 2 million to 3 million acres of forests by thinning them mechanically or setting controlled fires. Lightning-ignited fires were allowed to burn in forests far from human habitat.

Then came 2012.

In Washington, the order came to suppress all wildfires and forget about forest restoration this year.

And, in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper halted all controlled burns in state forests after one blew out of control in March, flaring into a wildfire that killed three homeowners.

Forest Service leaders still say they are making progress, year by year, and focusing their forest-treatment efforts in the most vital places, such as forests bordering mountain communities.

“Each of us is hoping that when we retire, things will be better than they are now,” said Elizabeth Reinhardt, assistant director for fire and aviation management at the Forest Service.

Others doubt things are getting better in the woods.

Prevention pays off

In Colorado, foresters and firefighters take pride in what their preventive measures have accomplished already. This year, in two of the worst wildfires in state history, they say prior forest-treatment programs saved a neighborhood and a reservoir serving 300,000 people in northern Colorado and another neighborhood in Colorado Springs.

Yet they also see signs of growing trouble. Climate change is lengthening the wildfire season and drying the forests, they say, and a possibly related infestation of pine-bark beetles left vast expanses of Colorado forests standing dry and dead.

“I think we’re in a continuing downward trend for overall forest health,” said Scott Woods, staff forester at the Colorado State Forest Service.

Everywhere, it’s a race against time. With each passing year, forests with 10 times the number of trees they once held are ready to burn with devastating fury in the event of a lightning strike or careless campfire. Residential development is pushing higher and deeper into the woods. The record-breaking summer heat of 2012 left foresters pondering an unanswerable question.

Will next year be any better?

“We need a good snowpack this winter, and then at least some intermittent rains in the first half of the summer,” said Boyd Lebeda, district forester for the state in Fort Collins, adding that lowering fire risks with forest restoration is a long-term job.

From Lory State Park, Matt Schulz, a forest-management coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, grinds up a narrow, steep road at 5 mph with park manager Larry Butterfield.

For the first mile, it’s a residential road, though it narrows to one lane in places. Above the houses, it deteriorates into a four-wheel-drive park road.

The houses on Red Cedar Drive stood at the very edge of the High Park fire, which for several weeks was called the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. One of these homes burned. Another survived flames that firefighters doused 2 feet from the door.

“That’s a concern with a lot of these places. One way in, one way out,” Schulz said, edging upward. “You’re trying to get emergency vehicles in while you’re trying to get people out.”

Above the neighborhood, it looks like someone firebombed the state park. The ground is scorched black. The trees are scorched black. On the black hills, tons of hay have been air-dropped to keep the soil from polluting the Horsetooth Reservoir below.

This was a ponderosa pine forest that hadn’t burned in a century. Now, “when a fire does get going, it’s crown to crown,” Schulz said.

At 5 a.m. on June 10, Butterfield had answered an emergency call. Evacuate the park; we’re evacuating the neighborhood, he was told. Now. The fire closed the state park for 17 days.

Yet, a few hundred yards down this rutty road, a green oasis appears in the blackened landscape. Here, in a series of fuel treatments from 2006 to 2009, the ponderosa pines had been thinned.

The fire burned through here and burned some of the trees but not all. Because it burned at a lower temperature, a green carpet of grass quickly regrew, creating a pretty meadow in the midst of a fire zone. Fifteen wild turkeys meandered through the meadow, feasting on the new vegetation.

Without this fire break, Schulz said, the homeowners on Red Cedar Drive and the reservoir serving Fort Collins would have been counted among the High Park fire victims.

“The work absolutely protected the safety of the surrounding community and the quality of the water in the reservoir,” he said. “I walked up to the incident commander, handed him a map of the treated areas and said, ‘Here’s an area where you can stop this fire.’ Luckily, they did that.”

Weeks later, when the Waldo Canyon fire eclipsed the High Park fire, destroying 346 homes, Colorado Springs credited another fire break with saving another neighborhood. The fire stopped a mile above Cedar Heights, leaving every house untouched.

Counting on grants

Schulz just hopes the federal grants that have subsidized Colorado’s treatment efforts keeping trickling down.

“These grants are really what’s saved us at this point,” he said.

Hubbard’s directive informed Forest Service offices that for 2012, fire suppression was in and restoration was out.

“I expect regional forester approval of any suppression strategy that includes restoration objectives,” he wrote. “I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long run.”

That decision shocked some Forest Service veterans, who had spent careers trying to restore the forests. George Weldon, a retired deputy director of fire and aviation in Montana, fired off a blistering letter to Hubbard, along with a request for records documenting the need for the directive.

“This will ensure there will be larger and more costly fires in the future,” he wrote.

Hubbard emphasized that his 2012 directive was not meant to signal a policy shift but to deal with an extraordinary wildfire threat for a single season.

This year, the Forest Service’s proposed budget for fuel treatment is down, though agency officials say the reduction is more than offset by proposed contributions to a separate forest-restoration program.

In Colorado, controlled burns remain on hold, and mechanical treatment efforts are limited by economic factors. There is no market for the wood, and much of what gets thinned would be valuable only to a biomass energy facility.

Politically, “people are much more in favor of the mechanical work,” said Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. Support for prescribed fires is still “fairly high, but that support goes down if they know the fire is right out their back door.”

In the woods, forestry experts see few signs that Colorado homes will be better prepared for the wildfires of 2013.

At Colorado State University, professor Doug Rideout and others from the forestry department toured the High Park fire area — and noticed surviving homes that still had no defensible space between them and the forest.

To create a defensible area around your home, “you could easily be out three to 10 grand. Let’s not blame the homeowners; let’s understand their behavior,” he said.

Rideout concluded that federal and state expenditures to protect homes in wildfire-prone areas may perversely provide developers and homeowners an incentive to do nothing.

“The federal programs, they’re sort of a Catch-22,” he said. “We make the wildland-urban interface a more desirable place to live, we’re more likely to have a higher property loss in a wildfire. It’s a difficult problem for both the homeowners and the federal government.”