For a century, we tried to eliminate fire from our landscape. Beloved Smokey the Bear gave us solemn advice to prevent wildfires, yet they continue in size, frequency, and severity in SW Colorado and across the western United States.
Now, we know that fire has a natural cycle and these wildfire suppression policies have led to dangerous overly dense forests. Couple this with warming temperatures, drought, and insect infestations, and Southwest Colorado’s forested lands face a significant threat of severe wildfires that impact the people, environment, and economy of Southwest Colorado. Forest health treatments like thinning and prescribed burns have been shown to reduce the risk of wildfire, but often treatments are conducted on a scattered, relatively small scale that has less impact than necessary to truly mitigate wildfire damages.
A recent La Plata County-based survey by Firewise, (now called Wildfire Adapted Partnership), and state and federal partners indicates that property owners and residents know that wildfire mitigation work will reduce their risk to wildfire, but name the physical difficulty and cost of doing the mitigation work as main barriers to improving their property and reducing wildfire risk.
The Colorado State Forest Service’s recently released Forest Action Plan goes into great detail on the condition and threats of wildfire to Colorado’s forested lands.
As noted in the Colorado Forest Action Plan, well-meaning historical fire suppression has caused the ratio of trees per acre to skyrocket much of the forested areas near communities must be more actively managed to reduce the severity of wildfires.
The Colorado Water Plan includes the need to advance forest management to protect Colorado’s water resources. It details the deep interconnectedness of forest and watershed health and urges that more be done to restore forest health for the sake of the watersheds as well. Many water providers across the state struggle with the costs and ability to maintain the means to deliver safe and adequate drinking water during and after a severe wildfire.
Healthy trees in Colorado previously acted as a carbon sink, according to the data in the CSFS Forest Action Plan, but due to the huge number of dead and dying trees, today’s forests, including in Southwest Colorado, are carbon emitters. Restoring forest health will help turn this around by allowing trees to naturally reduce carbon dioxide and improve air quality overall.
Finding innovative, economical, and environmentally sustainable ways to use the woody biomass from the treated lands can help pay for the necessary mitigation work. While SW Colorado already has many private sector businesses making progress on this front, there’s a need for rural economic development assistance to develop markets for the woody biomass.
Much of the forested land outside of the San Juan National Forest is privately-owned. Private landowners in particular can experience several challenges in conducting forest health treatments. Many of them want to help reduce the risk of wildfire on their property, but the physical labor, time, and expense required are significant barriers. Landowners are in need of a coordinated and well-funded effort that gives them the physical and technical capacity to reduce the threat of wildfire on their property and within their community.
To effectively reduce wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), workforce capacity and future workforce need to be grown to meet the demand for implementors of the wildfire mitigation work. This includes technical expertise such as sustainably thinning trees, shrubs, and brush from the wooded area and having enough foresters and other trained advisors for the development of forest management plans to work with private landowners.