US West learns to live with heightened threat of wildfire

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/AP
Pronghorns share a field with cattle at the northern end of a wildfire as it burns up a steep canyon in the background, Sunday, July 8, 2018, near La Veta, Colo.
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Wildfires have long been an integral part of the Western landscape, but in recent years fires have gotten bigger, more intense, and more destructive. Already this summer, more than a dozen wildfires have occurred in Colorado. In California, some 220,000 acres have burned, and last week a firefighter lost his life battling a wildfire near Yosemite National Park. Communities are responding to this “new normal” with efforts to mitigate properties and lands to reduce the spread of wildfire and minimize damage. In Colorado, some towns have even unleashed goats into open space to help reduce leaves, sprouts, and stems – “ladder fuels” that can enable a fire to climb into the tree canopy and become more dangerous. Adaptation efforts have already been shown to make a difference. Ashley Downing, executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, says fuel reduction efforts in Falls Creek Ranch helped to spare the neighborhood when the 416 fire lapped at its edge. “If that work hadn’t been done,” she says, “they might not have been able to save that community.”

Why We Wrote This

An early wildfire season in the American West comes at a time when more people are building near fire-prone wildlands. These new realities have forced communities to rethink the way they prepare for wildfire.

As Einar Jensen examines a ranch house for fire risk, it isn’t the towering trees that catch his notice. Instead, he zeroes in on the small evergreen shrub under the deck.

“We call junipers little green gas cans,” he tells Jessica Kinkelaar, who owns the home and surrounding 35-acre horse ranch where Mr. Jensen is conducting a wildfire risk assessment. “They should be removed from within 30 feet of any house.”

Most people, he says, “think wildfire mitigation is clearcutting.” The reality, he tells them, has more to do with understanding how fuels burn and knowing which species act as a buffer and which as tinder.

Why We Wrote This

An early wildfire season in the American West comes at a time when more people are building near fire-prone wildlands. These new realities have forced communities to rethink the way they prepare for wildfire.

Already this summer, wildfires in Colorado have burned more than 450,000 acres. More than 140 buildings have been lost in the Spring Creek Fire in southern Colorado, and the entire San Juan National Forest was closed for more than a week due to two fires. In California, nearly 250,000 acres have burned, and last week, a firefighter lost his life battling a wildfire near Yosemite National Park.

This follows on the heels of 2017, which set a record for the costliest wildfire season ever and was the third largest wildfire season by area burned in nearly 60 years.

The hot, dry conditions prevailing across the West this summer are ripe for wildfire, and have set in motion numerous fire bans, charcoal bans, and even canceled some Fourth of July fireworks.

But increasingly, communities are also giving attention to the many ways they can mitigate properties and lands to minimize the damage fire will do if it does occur.

“Is this our new normal? It is. Some people are calling it our new ‘abnormal.’ It’s where we’re at, and there’s no indication wildfires are going to become less of a problem,” says Tania Schoennagel, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “This is costing us billions of dollars, and lives, and homes. We need to be doing a lot more to actively protect our communities, creating communities that truly are adapted to wildfires.”

Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor
Einar Jensen, a risk reduction specialist with South Metro Fire Rescue in Colorado, conducts a wildfire risk assessment at the Little Raven Ranch in Littleton, Colo. He advises homeowners on ways to alter their property and landscaping, prepare emergency plans, and become better 'fire-adapted.' July 17, 2017.

While wildfires have long been an integral part of the Western landscape, fires in recent years have gotten bigger, more intense, and more destructive. The federal government used to spend about $1 billion a year on wildfire suppression and management in the 1990s, and in recent years has been averaging around $3.7 billion a year. In the Western United States, the fire season is now nearly three months longer than it was in the 1970s.

Experts generally cite three primary reasons for the trends: Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions and earlier snowmelt, a factor researchers believe accounts for about half the increase in area burned since 1985. A century of fire-suppression policy, in which natural fires haven’t been allowed to burn, has led to a build-up of fuels and denser forests, leading to more intense, more dangerous fires when they occur. Further increasing the stakes, more people are building in what is known as the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI – homes and communities in bucolic settings, surrounded by huge tracts of public and private forests and grasslands.

Some targeted forest management work is being done to thin forests near communities, reduce fuel, and conduct controlled burns. But it’s that latter issue that some wildfire experts believe offers the best opportunity to minimize damage.

“Fuel treatments are a great idea, but are very unlikely to have broad-scale impacts on fire severity,” says Dr. Schoennagel.

She recently co-authored a study that examined areas that had been treated – thinned or burned – for wildfire, and how many of those areas encountered subsequent wildfires. Of the areas treated between 2004 and 2013, about 10 percent later burned in a 10-year period, or about 1 percent a year, simply because the acreage involved is so huge.  

She says strategic management is still a good idea, but “it’s a vast area, it’s like throwing a bunch of darts out there for your treatments, and throwing a bunch of darts out for wildfires. The overlap of those darts is very low.”

Tamara Harney
Goats munch on low vegetation in the Pineridge neighborhood of Castle Pines, Colo. Part of the 'Ready Set Goat!' campaign, these goat herds are brought into participating communities to help with wildfire mitigation. By eating lower-hanging leaves, sprouts, and stems of plants – especially gambel oak – they make it harder for fire to climb up into the tree canopy. June 23, 2018.

Fighting fire with … goats?

Despite extensive fire prevention efforts, the bulk of wildfires – about 84 percent – are caused by humans.

“We can’t stop it, we must adapt to it,” says Jensen, a risk reduction specialist at the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority, who works in communities south of Denver. “You have the right to live in a wildfire-prone ecosystem, but you also have a massive responsibility.”

Jensen’s organization is part of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, launched five years ago by The Nature Conservancy, The Watershed Center, and the US Forest Service, which now includes more than 80 affiliates and encourages members to create partnerships and share best practices.

Jensen regularly conducts the sort of wildfire risk assessments he’s doing today at the Little Raven Ranch. But he’s particularly proud of the “Ready Set Goat!” campaign he helped launch four years ago. A northern Colorado company brings a herd of several hundred goats down to participating communities – this year there were five – and set the goats loose on an acre at a time of open space areas surrounded by homes. The goats feed on all the leaves, sprouts, and stems from the ground level to six feet in the air – the “ladder fuels” that can enable a fire to climb into the tree canopy and get more dangerous.

“Three hundred goats eating 300 pounds of vegetation in a day – that’s 4.5 tons of biomass eliminated [per month],” says Jensen. As a side benefit, it encourages biodiversity – and neighbors who had been fed up with the noise and destruction of tractors brought into thin trees love the goats. “Now we have people excited about mitigation,” he says.

Goats, obviously, aren’t going to solve the West’s wildfire problem. But community efforts to adapt existing homes for wildfires and to do better land-use planning for areas where homes haven’t been built yet can make a huge difference, experts say, especially when such efforts are community-wide and accompanied by strong incentives or penalties.

Ashley Downing, executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, another member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, notes that when the large 416 Fire burned near Durango this year, the work some neighborhoods did paid off. Falls Creek Ranch, where residents had focused heavily in recent years on clearing brush and dead trees for fire mitigation, was completely spared, though the fire came to the edge of the subdivision.

“If that work hadn’t been done, they might not have been able to save that community,” says Ms. Downing.

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that has done copious work on wildfire issues, cites cities like San Diego and Flagstaff, Ariz., as examples of communities that have gotten serious about mandating fire adaptation.

In San Diego, Mr. Rasker says, each of the 43,000 homes deemed at risk from wildfire get inspected every two years, with mitigation actions required. In Flagstaff – where the whole city is at risk – a strict building code requires flame-retardant landscaping and building materials. The city also taxed itself to do fuel reduction on the land surrounding the community – a decision that paid off when a fire broke out a few years later, but ran out of fuel as it neared town.

A local-federal ‘disconnect’

In the West, nearly half of the population lives in the wildland-urban interface. But just 16 percent of that land is developed. The other 84 percent, where development could still occur, deserves a great deal more attention, says Rasker.

“There’s this disconnect,” he says. “Local land-use decisions are made by city and local governments … but it’s federal agencies firefighting.”

Local officials see the promise of increased taxes from new development, and planning departments are often overworked and know little about fire. It’s one reason that Headwaters Economics in 2015 helped start a community assistance program that helps cities and towns make better land-use planning decisions with respect to wildfire safety. Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire has worked with 23 communities across the West, helping them think through the policies and zoning that could have the biggest impacts.

“We know how to build homes that stand a high chance of surviving a fire, we know how to treat fuels to minimize the chance of embers hitting a home,” Rasker says. “What’s lacking is the political will on the part of local elected officials. And in some cases, what’s lacking is the skill set.”

Back in Littleton, Ms. Kinkelaar is pleased to learn that in general, her ranch – along with the 30 horses who live there – is in pretty good shape. “With all the fires, it’s just scary for us,” she says. Other than a few suggestions – mowing eight feet out from the side of the barn, asking her neighbors to mow some swaths of their longer grass along her fence, and changing her emergency plan to one where they shelter in place in case of fire ­– Jensen is pleased with how her property would fare.

“Most of the people who call me for a home ignition assessment don’t really need to,” he says. He looks over at a neighboring property with tall grass and lots of decrepit equipment and buildings. “They haven’t called, and that property probably would burn.”

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