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High Park Fire Draws Scrutiny of Past Firefighting Efforts

Kirk Siegler

With Colorado and the rest of the drought-plagued Southwest coming off a winter that saw a record low snowpack, federal fire managers battling the destructive High Park Fire west of Fort Collins are warning of a long, expensive summer ahead.

There’s also a growing consensus that earlier forest management techniques could be partly to blame for that.

How We Got Here

The smoky skies over Fort Collins looked like a crowded freeway of choppers and planes when US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stopped by the fire’s incident command post last Saturday.

He said the massive fires burning both here and in nearby New Mexico underscore why more focus needs to be on wildfire mitigation programs; like creating buffers between forests and homes, especially in severe drought years like these.

“So that overtime we can reduce the risk of these large, intensive fires,” Vilsack said. “For too many years, we didn’t do that.”

For more than a century to be precise, the US Forest Service that Vilsack today oversees viewed any fire – even natural ones – as a threat to future timber sales.

The federal government even invented Smokey Bear and did all it could to suppress just about every fire.

“Remember, only you can prevent forest fires,” was a common phrase uttered from the fictional bear in cartoons, PSAs and signs in national forests from the 1920s through the 1980s.


“The chief problem we’re seeing here in many of these forests in the Southwest now is that there’s been an absence of fire,” said Mark Finney, a research forester at the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana.

Finney and other federal scientists there study wildfire behavior, and he says today’s forests are anything but natural. They’re full of dense, aging stands of trees, and in Colorado, many of them are dead because of the mountain pine beetle.

Had wildfires not been stamped out for so long, Finney says smaller, less-intense blazes would have cleared out much of the brush and trees as they died.

“This is really the issue that’s hard for people to grasp,” Finney said. “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.”

Population Explosion

When Smokey Bear first came on the scene, fewer people lived between St. Louis and San Francisco. Now places like the foothills of the Colorado Front Range are full of roads and power lines, homes and vacation cabins.

A lot of federal money has gone to fuel treatment and tree-thinning programs here since President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003.

That’s made some headway, but it’s also brought an unintended consequence, said Professor Doug Rideout, who teaches forest economics at Colorado State University.

“As we make this a more desirable place to live and to be, what happens is we see more and more development, and more highly valued development,” said Rideout, who added that means more taxpayer money is spent to protect life and property there when the flames are threatening.

Efforts to change the law so that those who choose to live in these fire-prone forests shoulder more of the responsibility have generally gotten lukewarm responses in the libertarian-leaning West.

But this may soon change, according to Rideout.

“I think we’re going to find that it may be a little more expensive and costly to maintain that kind of infrastructure up in the forest,” Rideout said.

A Solution Sought

So how does the country and its already strained federal budget get out of this cycle?

It’s a question that US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell isn’t sure has an immediate answer.

“I don’t think we’re going to get out of this cycle but there are some things that we can do,” Tidwell said, after wrapping up a tour of the High Park Fire over the weekend.

Tidwell said the country needs to be willing to do more to restore the resiliency of its famous national forests.

“And when I say that I mean to be able to get in there and do the thinning, the timber harvests, especially around the homes to be able to reduce the amount of trees that are on the landscape, and where it’s appropriate to use prescribed fire at the right time of the year to reduce those fuels,” he said.

Tidwell also said firefighters must have the resources they need to move from one part of the country to the other to respond to major fires like this one. In a rare show of bi-partisanship, Congress did help last week by sending abill to President Obama authorizing the construction of more heavy air tankers to fight future fires.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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