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Have Forest Management Policies Increased Fire Risk?

Kirk Siegler
The High Park Fire as seen from the air Sunday, June 10th.

A troubling theme has emerged during our coverage of the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins; the blaze may only be the first of many large, destructive wildfires to come.

That has less to do with the severe drought gripping our region, and more to do with the current state of Colorado’s forests, says research forester Mark Finney of the US Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Lab.

“In the last century or so, there hasn’t been enough fire, if there had been more fire, more under-burning under moderate conditions, we would likely see very different fire behavior than what we’re seeing now.”

Like many parts of the West, fire has been suppressed along Colorado’s Front Range and foothills for decades, setting things up for more large fires like the High Park blaze in the near future.

“I don’t think that the Front Range of Colorado has seen the worst fire that can happen.”

Finney grew up in Golden in the 1960s and doesn’t remember there being many wildfires. He provided us with this helpful map to illustrate his point.

The good news, say forest managers, is that things can still be done to mitigate the impacts these large, unnatural wildfires might have in our communities and our watersheds.

US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell spoke to this during a visit to Fort Collins last Saturday. He called for more thinning and logging projects to create buffers between homes and businesses and the national forest. He also said private landowners and local and federal agencies need to collaborate more to solve the problem.

“We can greatly reduce the severity of these fires especially around the homes so that when we do get a fire we’re not going to have so much of the country that has a very severe burn. It’s going to be more of a moderate to light burn. That enables the watershed to recover much quicker.”

To date, the High Park Fire has destroyed nearly 200 homes and burned more than 65,000 acres. It’s currently 55% contained.

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