July 2, 2012

Changed by the climate: Colorado conditions ripe for monster fire

It's part of a 10-year trend in the West that has seen warmer, drier weather lead to record-setting blazes.

By DARRYL FEARS/The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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A flag flies on a burned car in Colorado Springs, Colo., where residents were allowed to visit their homes Sunday after the Waldo Canyon fire ravaged their neighborhood.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via The Associated Press

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A member of the Rock Creek Rural Fire Protection District battles a blaze near the Hidden Lakes subdivision last week in Twin Falls, Idaho. Over the last 10 years, the wildfire season, which normally runs from June to September, has expanded to include May and October.

Ashley Smith/Times-News via The Associated Press

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Colorado is in the middle of "a terrible dry period," Henson said. The snowpack statewide was less than 3 percent of normal on June 1, about the time the fires started.

With a warming climate, authorities are going to need to be more active in managing forests to limit wildfire damage, scientists say.

In New Mexico, where two fires recently combined to form the Whitewater-Baldy Complex, the state's largest-ever wildfire, Christopher Allison sees other disastrous fires waiting to happen because, he said, the Forest Service has not allowed loggers to clear trees.

"I think you're going to have to get in there ... and remove trees," said Allison, department director for extension animal sciences and natural resources at New Mexico State University. "There are millions of acres that look a lot like what's being burned right now."

Clearing trees is important because fires like to climb. A low-intensity burn that starts in grass will work its way up small trees. Fires burn with higher intensity in the canopy, where they are harder to manage, Allison said.

Logging is forbidden in some Western areas to protect the endangered Mexican spotted owl. But the Forest Service must make a call -- wildfire or the owls, Allison said.

Another problem is the construction of homes next to scrub brush that often is a starting point for fires. "It's not a matter of if they burn, but when," Allison said.

About one in four Colorado homes sits in a fire risk zone, a recent state report showed -- involving about a million people, according to a Colorado State Parks map.

Sherman said the Forest Service is working to clear forests of the food that fires need to grow. The agency oversees 193 million acres, and as much as 82 million acres need to have dead trees and grass removed, he said.

A controlled burn is one method, costing $200 per acre, money the Forest Service does not have, he said. Logging is another way, but as the price of lumber has been falling, many sawmills say removing trees is not worth the expense.

So the Forest Service has set modest goals. In 2004, it worked to clear its woods of 2.1 billion board feet of trees, the measurement of cut trees from top to bottom. The 2012 goal is 2.6 billion, about 215,000 acres, Allison said.

"These are the areas where we have our greatest difficulty in protecting life and property," Sherman said. "When you're talking about vast forest ... it's very difficult."

 

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