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Environment

Colorado State Forester Reflects On Forest Management And Wildfires During Record-Breaking Season

Burnt area of the Cameron Peak Fire
inciweb.nwcg.gov
Burnt area of the Cameron Peak Fire, photographed in Sept. 2020.

We're in the midst of a record-breaking fire season, and while two of the largest fires our state has ever seen — Cameron Peak and East Troublesome — continue to burn, we look ahead at what is being done to prevent years like this one going forward.

KUNC’s Colorado Edition spoke with Mike Lester, state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service, about how Colorado’s forests are managed.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matt Bloom: Why did the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires grow so quickly?

Mike Lester: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with, of course, wind and how dry the fuels were.

We’re in a drought here that dries fuels out, that makes them much more explosive. And, of course, wind is a major factor as well. And particularly with the East Troublesome Fire, that wind made a big difference. But if you look at the Cameron Peak (Fire) as well, those big jumps usually were driven by wind.

You mentioned winds. We’ve talked about the impact of climate change, and drought on these fires. We’ve also heard about beetle kill — these are trees that have been killed by beetles. What is the impact of beetle kill and forest management on the growth and severity of these fires?

It's kind of interesting because they all play a role.

What beetle kill does is once the needles fall off, it doesn't make that much difference on how a fire ignites, but it does make a difference on how it burns, and it makes its burning a little less predictable. So beetle kill certainly is there.

"Sooner or later, we're going to have to pay the piper."
Mike Lester, state forester

And of course drought, I mean, that's our fuels, that's what's burning and the drier it gets the more quickly it burns.

And management, basically what we've got here is we decided a long time ago that the best thing to do is put fires out as quickly as possible and it really did make sense at the time, given what we were seeing with some of those big fires around the turn of the previous century.

But over time we found out what we've done is we've built up the fuel level by doing that, and sooner or later, we're going to have to pay the piper for that. That's, I believe, what we're seeing right now.

I know this season is still going on, but what lessons have you learned so far from this year, and these record-breaking fires?

Well, I don't know if there are lessons we learned. There are lessons we were pretty sure of that have kind of come home to roost.

We realized that we have a lot of fuels in our forests and that we need to reduce those fuels, that's what's going to make our forests healthy. Our forests have evolved in a certain way, and they're not in that condition now.

Heavy fuels along Manhattan Road
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Heavy fuels photographed by crews working in the Cameron Peak Fire area.

For example, ponderosa pine, which most folks in the Front Range are familiar with, they've naturally evolved in the face of frequent fires and have been fairly park-like stands, clumps here and there. And then when you suppress fire, they’re no longer clump-like stands, they are solid stands and that's something that we need to fix, to put them in a more natural state. Tough to let those things burn where you have the wildland-urban interface.

So you really need to take a mechanical approach to at least initially reduce those fuels. That's expensive. We have to do something, there is no free lunch here. We have a lot of fuels. It's a dry area. We are a fire prone area, the whole interior west is, and so we need to take that into account with our management. But that's going to take financial resources.

Is that private or public financial resources? Either one? A combination?

It’s a little bit of both. The largest amount of forest land we have in Colorado is federal land. That's both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and, of course, the national parks.

And they spend a fair amount of the money they have available to them doing this kind of work. They're pretty dedicated to that, so that's federal land. We have some grant funds, they come to us from both the federal government from the state government, and we apply those to forest management as well to make it more affordable for land owners. So there are some resources that we do use.

But we have limited logging capacity in the state of Colorado, so even if there were more resources initially, we still have a capacity issue going forward, so we really do need to devote some resources to this. Otherwise we're going to see what we're seeing out there right now.

Do you see anything changing in forest management in the next few months or the next few years due to these fires? Can anything change with the current amount of resources?

Things can always change. There can always be resources that are dedicated from some other place to another place, so that's always the case. Colorado, it has a lot of needs, and so they're going to have to allocate those resources in one way or another.

I have my biases. We should allocate those towards forest management and trying to reduce the fuels that we have. But that's not my call. And as a citizen of Colorado, I recognize that there are a lot of needs out there. As a forester, my focus is on trying to make our forests healthier, so that's my bias.

This conversation is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from Oct. 27. You can find the full episode here.

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