The large wildfires we have experienced in Colorado and across the West threaten our homes while risking — and all too often, taking — the lives of residents and firefighters. Scientists studying the phenomenon know these big fires are the result of high temperatures and drought exacerbated by climate change and coinciding with high winds.
Luckily, there are two simple and extremely effective actions we can take in response. The first is to make our homes “Firewise,” tending an area up to 100 feet around a structure, installing metal roofs, etc. These efforts alone can protect 95% of homes, according to studies from the USDA’s Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Sciences Laboratory.
The second is to preserve our carbon-storing forests, which are living climate buffers that also give us clean air and water, flood and erosion control, and fish and wildlife habitat.
Instead, Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, and Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette have been spending taxpayer dollars not on Firewise programs but to cut down our National Forests to the tune of over $3.3 billion (under the 2021 infrastructure bill) in the name of “wildfire risk reduction.”
Why in the world are they doing this? Because the conventional wisdom of the forest products industry, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management is that our forests are “overgrown” and these “fuels” (aka trees) are to blame for the fires burning down our communities.
Now, it’s definitely true that the practice of logging, plus fire suppression, duing the last century has prevented the ecologically essential process of wildfire from doing its thing. And who do you think was, and still is, pushing to suppress those backcountry fires? Yep: the forest products industry, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
But if “fuels” alone were behind the big fires, then the Coast Range forests of the Pacific Northwest — containing the most biomass of anywhere on Earth — would be constantly ablaze. Instead, wildfires there are few and far between. Why? Because the coast keeps temperatures low and moisture high.
In contrast, here in Colorado and the rest of the arid West, large fires are the byproduct of high temperatures, low moisture, and high winds. When those factors are in play, you can clear-cut an entire forest and flames will still spread.
For instance, the Marshall Fire outside Boulder—the most destructive in Colorado history—burned almost entirely through grasslands and residential neighborhoods. This was not a proper forest; it’s an area populated by stray trees. The culprit? High temperatures, low moisture, high winds. And when did the fire stop? When the weather cooled, it snowed, and winds died.
Not only doesn’t logging prevent the fires that menace our communities, but it can actually dry out forests by opening stands to sunlight and wind, spreading flames faster.
Indeed, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history—April’s Calf Canyon fire that ranged over 500 square miles—was the direct result of the Forest Service program of logging followed by prescribed burns to “reduce fuels,” that spread out of control during a high wind event. The same thing happened in May in southwest Colorado near Montrose, where the Forest Service let another of its “fuel treatments” run loose, with this one escaping across 300 acres, burning down three structures including a resident’s home.
Yet this “log to save the forest” scheme is exactly what’s planned for 3.5 million acres of Colorado’s popular Front Range public lands, and tens of millions of acres across the West, according to the Forest Service’s “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis.” Meanwhile, nearly all the real work and costs to protect homes fall on communities and homeowners.
At best, this logging is expensive busywork that might limit the spread of a few smaller backcountry fires, which we already know we should let burn. At worst, it’s degrading natural ecosystems, worsening climate change, and providing a false sense of security that endangers the homes, economies, and lives of Coloradans.
Josh Schlossberg, of Evergreen, sits on the steering committee of Eco-Integrity Alliance.