BLACK FOREST — Dave Root’s state-issued pickup truck bounces down an overgrown two-track, a pair of pinecones stuck between the hood and windshield wipers.
Though he grew up in Colorado Springs and still lives there, Root has been working among the trees in Black Forest for the better part of three decades. It’s the cathedral where he first felt his calling for forestry, and it’s the classroom where he first learned his trade. So, there is perhaps no one at the Colorado State Forest Service who better understands these woods and their history.
And, today, he’s about to reveal a little secret of the forest that demonstrates how effectively thoughtful mitigation can reduce the damage that wildfires cause.
But first some background.
When Root began preaching the gospel of mitigation in Black Forest years ago, residents were skeptical, he says. The last thing any of them wanted to do was to cut down trees — especially big ones.
“Big trees, to people, often represent a more special tree than the little ones,” Root says.
And, before the fire, Black Forest was made up of thousands and thousands of big trees. When Root and colleagues did studies, they were amazed that almost all the large ponderosa pine trees in Black Forest were about 150 years old. They concluded that the area had likely been almost clear-cut to build railroads and mining structures during the gold rush years and had been growing back since then.
Because that growth coincided with a population boom in Colorado, it also coincided with an era of fire suppression during which communities raced to put out any wildfire as quickly as they could. As a result, Black Forest — just like many other forests up and down the Front Range — grew ever thicker.
When people began moving to Black Forest in droves in the late 1900s, that density created a false impression: This is just the way the forest is naturally. It’s something that still sticks in people’s minds and hampers efforts at better mitigation.
“The misconception I hear most is that Mother Nature doesn’t make a mistake. It’s this thick because it’s supposed to be,” said Kenneth Clark, the forest director of Black Forest Together, which helps and encourages homeowners to mitigate their property. “But what they’re not considering is it’s been probably 120 years ago, we as a country decided when a fire comes up, we’re going to put it out immediately. That was Mother Nature’s way of thinning this stuff out.”
Root spends his days with the state forest service — technically a part of Colorado State University — helping homeowners and communities manage the forests on their land. But that’s as far as government goes in Colorado to push mitigation. Neither the state nor local governments have the authority to tell homeowners to thin their trees.
Jim Rebitski, the assistant chief at Black Forest Fire Rescue, said he sometimes gets calls from homeowners concerned about their neighbors’ overgrown properties. It’s dangerous, the callers will say, can’t you make them cut trees down for safety?
No, Rebitski will say to the callers.
“People think the fire department has all this power to do whatever we want, when actually we have very little authority over anything,” Rebitski said. “When a fire’s going on, yes, we have all the authority in the world to do whatever we need to do. Until that happens, we have very little authority.”
So, mitigation largely comes down to public education, and Root has the perfect teaching tool on a patch of land in Black Forest.
He stops the truck now and strides toward a stand of trees, pine needles crunching underneath his feet. Across the road is a large meadow created when the fire destroyed every single tree that once stood there. But the trees where Root is walking are alive and green, with only superficially blackened trunks.
“These basically burned at the same time,” he says.
So why the difference?
The section of land where Root is standing — known locally as Section 16 — is owned by the Colorado State Land Board, managed by state foresters and home to hiking trails. Some years ago, the state decided it needed to be mitigated, so Root and others worked to thin trees out at even intervals. Jail bars, a colleague jokingly calls it.
“My answer is green jail bars beat black sticks any day,” Root says.
There are different mitigation methods, Root concedes, including one he calls “groupy-clumpy” where more dense stands of trees are spaced farther apart. Regardless of the method, Root said mitigation doesn’t mean clear-cutting. It means cutting low-hanging branches, culling small trees that can act as fire ladders up to bigger trees and creating space between the tops of large trees.
When that happens, he said, fires can’t climb up into the crowns or jump from tree to tree. They run along the ground, scorching the thick bark of ponderosa pines but leaving the tree alive.
And that’s exactly what happened when the Black Forest fire hit Section 16. What had been a raging crown fire dropped to the ground and burned meekly along. The trees survived.
Root stops walking at the edge of the stand of green trees. Here, he says, is where the money ran out on the mitigation project. Nothing beyond this point was thinned prior to the fire.
Before him lies 30 acres of black sticks poking apocalyptically up from the ground. There’s not a surviving tree in the group. Even five years later, Root looks visibly pained by the sight.
This is what he wishes he could show homeowners who are reluctant to mitigate, Root says. Look at the difference it makes.
“None of us,” he says a little later, “will ever live to see the forest the way it was. My view is the forest the way it was was a huge fire trap. So maybe that shouldn’t be our goal.”
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