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How Colorado Decides To Fight A Wildfire Is A Matter Of Resources, Priorities

The Santa Fe NF Engine Crew mops up an area in the Cold Springs Fire, July 12, 2016.

Colorado has a handful of burning wildfires, including the Cold Springs Fire near Nederland. At the height of the fire, almost 2,000 people had to evacuate their homes. It’s now fully contained, with more than 460 fire personnel and a dozen or so aircraft working the scene.

The approach is very different for the Beaver Creek Fire, burning in the Routt National Forest, north west of Walden. It’s charred more than 20,000 acres, but has just about 200 firefighters and looks like it’s being allowed to burn.

Which approach fire managers choose depends on a straightforward set of priorities.

"They go in order of protecting life, protecting property, and protecting resources - natural resources, ecological resources, and those kinds of things," said Tony Cheng, a professor of forestry at Colorado State University. "If you look at the Cold Springs Fire, there’s imminent risk to life as well as property – [hence] the decision to put a lot of resources there."

Cheng, who is also director of CSU’s Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, said incident managers must balance that with the risk to firefighters’ lives when deciding how to approach wildland fires.

Interview Highlights With Tony Cheng

On Allowing Fire To Run Its Course As A Natural Process

"It’s how forests renew. A healthy forest is actually one that has a cycle of life and death, and fire – as catastrophic in human eyes as it can be – is what these forests and ecosystems need. Similar to big insect outbreaks we’ve had (e.g. the mountain pine and spruce beetle outbreaks) -- those are ugly, they’re shocking to see for us as humans, but that’s how forests have evolved and that’s what they need to maintain their sustainability and health."

On Fire Policies Involving Population Growth And The Wildland Urban Interface

"As density increases, as there’s more people, it puts a strain on first responders – those are typically your local sheriff’s office, local fire protection districts. And when a fire ignites and burns in hot, dry, windy conditions like we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, it can quickly overwhelm the capacity of those resources. So it really narrows the opportunity and really focuses those decisions towards protecting life and property."

On The Evolving Nature Of Fighting Wildfires

"It really comes down to a social and cultural shift about how we live with fire as a society, especially here in the Rocky Mountains, where fire is a natural and important part of the ecosystem. The more we put out fires, suppress those, it sort of creates this vicious cycle of the next fire then having more fuel, and therefore burning more hotly and having a greater chance of having negative impacts on people and our ecosystems."

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