Colorado wildfire: Have we learned any lessons? (+videos)
Ten years after the devastating Hayman Fire caused policy changes and a new federal law, another massive Colorado wildfire is causing destruction. Experts have a good idea about what's wrong, but fixing it is another matter.
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Forest ecologists say severe, recurring droughts since the mid-1990s have weakened trees throughout the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, opening the door for infestations of bark beetles. Weakened and dead trees pile up on the forest floors, leaving carpets of flammable debris that, due to budget cuts and shifting policies, aren’t cleared out or burned in a controlled manner.Skip to next paragraph
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Add to that the fact that housing development has pushed into areas that were once considered too remote for building – what land specialists called the “wildland-urban interface” – and standards for building “defensible space” around houses vary widely. Many homeowners landscape with water-intensive lawns and many are averse to unsightly preventative burns or smaller scale timber harvesting – known as “fuel reduction” designed to prevent the buildup of flammable tinder.
“In the last 20 years, everyone wants to build a house in the forest, everyone wants a second home in the forest out west and people are failing to recognize they’re building a house in a very fire-prone habitat,” says Mark Ashton, a professor of forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, Conn. “People are building houses out in the wilderness because it’s beautiful, and it is, but Mother Nature doesn’t recognize that. Urban dwellers have divorced themselves from the realities of nature.”
“There’s a public that thinks that anything to do with cutting is bad,” Dr. Ashton says.
“Lawns, in my opinion, should be illegal in this area,” Mr. Rutledge says. “We can’t afford the water.”
The economic downturn has also crimped budgets on local, state and federal levels, and as fires becomes more destructive, people demand more money for fighting fires instead of preventing fires. Joe Duda, deputy state forester at the Colorado State Forest Service, says some federal agencies are spending up to 40 percent of their budgets on reacting to wildfires, crowding out other programs. Headwater Economics, a Montana-based research organization, estimates total costs of fighting fires now exceed $3 billion annually and will continue to grow as more people build homes in wildland areas.
“It’s a Catch-22, more of your budget has to go to fire, less of your budget goes to timber management, fuel reduction and the less fuel reduction you have, the greater the fire risk,” Mr. Duda says.
The hundreds of millions of dollars caused in the Hayman fire destruction eventually led to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2003 that sought to make major changes in fire fighting policies. Many predict that the images of Waldo Canyon homes being reduced to ashes and thousands forced into emergency shelter – not to mention fires burning in at least four other Western states – will have a similar emotional impact. But whether that results in a once again in large-scale policy changes, and whether it will make any difference, is an open question.
“We humans have a tendency to deny the impact of nature,” Rutledge says. “To pretend we have the control over nature is the greatest egotism.”