9:15am

Thu August 23, 2012
Wildfires

California and Washington Spotlight Country’s Costly Wildfire Problem

Wildfires continue to rage across parts of Northern California and Washington, producing images that look familiar to many in Colorado.

Following the destructive Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in June, Colorado has seen a reduction in significant fire potential. That’s thanks in large part to increased monsoon moisture during the second half of July [.pdf].

But the country’s attention remains focused on how and why such large wildfires have been able to ravage parts of the West.

The first installment of a five-part NPR series launched today looks at forest management practices over the past century and the so called “Smokey Bear effect”. Christopher Joyce reports about the “no fires” policy followed by the U.S. Forest Service and the consequences seen today. William Armstrong of the U.S. Forest Service told Joyce:

Large blocks of forest — if they want those — then what they must understand is that fire is inevitable.

The need for the U.S. public to embrace fire as a forest management technique was underscored by report filed by Kirk Siegler last June following the High Park Fire. Mark Finney with the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana told Siegler:

This is really the issue that’s hard for people to grasp. The reason that our modern wildfires now are so severe, and cause so much damage to watersheds, to developed infrastructure such as housing, is because of the lack of fire.

If there is anything positive to come out of the busy wildfire season, it's new data for scientists to improve forest management strategies. A study going on right now along Colorado’s Front Range could provide some answers. Researchers at CSU just happened to sample trees in Young Gulch north of Fort Collins, which was scorched by the High Park Fire.

Dendrochronologists will return to core those same trees again. Boulder County Senior Research Specialist Chad Julian explained that the data will give him more ideas and techniques to mitigate wildfire risk:

We’re being very aggressive with our restoration of ponderosa pine, but I’m probably only managing for the middle. I’d like to manage for the extremes on both ends as well as the middle to have that complete mosaic.