In the 35 years that Mike Lester has worked as a forester, nothing compares to the East Troublesome fire’s behavior last week. Its 105,000-acre jump from Wednesday night into Thursday alone would classify as the fifth-largest wildfire in recorded state history; the fire as a whole is now the second-largest.
“I’ve never heard of something going quite this fast,” said Lester, the state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service.
This year’s wildfire season, Lester says, is raising literal and metaphorical red flags that forests in Colorado and across the American West might be unhealthy.
But to understand why 2020 has been the worst fire season on record, it helps to have a crash course in fire ecology and its history.
Some of the main factors that determine a fire’s intensity and size are wind, temperature, humidity and fuel moisture. Colorado has experienced significant drought this year, drying out vegetation and seeing no precipitation as relief. When the Cameron Peak fire, the largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history, made a 30,000-acre run two weeks ago, assisted by high winds, Larimer and Grand counties were in “severe” or “extreme” drought. And during last week’s run by the East Troublesome fire, some areas of Grand County have been classified in “exceptional” drought.
The type of fuel also matters, but Lester noted that stands of dead trees — including those killed by pine or spruce beetles — don’t necessarily make a fire worse; they just make it less predictable. The density of a forest makes a greater difference, with fire spreading more easily in highly dense forests.
Right now, most of Colorado’s forests are incredibly dense. When the U.S. Forest Service enacted early 20th century fire suppression policies — often known as the “10 o’clock rule,” where any forest fire was expected to be put out as soon as possible — there were no accompanying policies to manually thin and manage forested lands.
But fire has always been a natural part of Colorado’s ecosystem, albeit to varying degrees based on elevation. Lower elevations are historically used to low-grade fires as often as every few years, while high alpine forests would get intense, stand-clearing blazes every 150-300 years, and mid-grade elevations would get moderate fires every 50 to 100 years.
Historically, wildfires in Colorado were almost always sparked by lightning, but that doesn’t mean human-caused fires have always been bad. In fact, native tribes regularly lit fires to keep the land healthy and refreshed. Each tribe had its own reason for burning the land, according to research from Utah State University, but many found it helpful for hunting, farming and even intertribal conflict. When they were pushed out as white settlers moved westward across the continent, their burning habits disappeared as well.
In the century or so since the “10 o’clock” mentality, forests have grown increasingly dense with both live and dead vegetation. And while the mindset around fire management has changed to acknowledge fire’s beneficial role on the landscape, not enough resources have been allocated to adequately restore forests to where they should be, according to Lester. Suppressing fire means more than just building up extra vegetation as fuel for an inevitable burn; plants end up competing more for resources, making the living ones more vulnerable when a fire does roll through.
All of this is occurring in the context of climate change, which is leading to warmer years, longer fire seasons, and often drier weather patterns.
In other words, we’ve teed up 2020 for a long time
“We have known and predicted for years that we were going to have some big fires like this, it just was a matter of all those factors put together,” Lester said.
There are certainly some unique elements of this year’s fires. The East Troublesome fire, which grew by a factor of six from Wednesday night to Thursday morning, jumped over the Continental Divide through a handful of spot fires. Many were flabbergasted that a fire would fly above treeline from one forest to another.
But incident commander Noel Livingston said in a briefing Friday morning that it’s not unheard of for a fire to jump over mountains. And given high winds that carried embers and thick smoke for miles, even past treeless tundra, it makes sense that spot fires lit up once the wind reached lower, more vegetated elevations.
“We were hoping that wouldn’t occur,” Livingston said. But, he added, “How often that happens across the Rockies, I can’t say.”
Another potential factor affecting this year’s fire season: the coronavirus pandemic. As many public spaces and attractions have been closed to the public, or limited in their capacity, people have been flocking to the outdoors to get out of the house.
Bridget Kochel, a spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that the department is still trying to quantify this year’s visitation numbers especially compared to other years. And because park rangers often give verbal warnings for people violating fire bans, any statistics on the number of violations could be undercounts.
Investigations into the cause of some of this year’s biggest wildfires are still ongoing. On the whole, though, humans caused around 85% of all wildfires from 2000 to 2017. Sometimes wildfires start from unattended campfires or even arson, but other times it’s from a stray cigarette butt, a poorly maintained car, or sparks thrown from welding operations.
OK, so 2020 is bad. How do we make future years better?
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. Lester, the state forester, pointed to an upcoming report from the CSFS that will highlight the predicted cost of restoring forests to a healthier state. Given the price tag — and pandemic-related economic downturn — as well as the forestry industry’s limited workforce, it’s going to take a long time to make a sizable change.
“If we want to keep this state healthy from a forest standpoint and healthy from a population standpoint, we really do need to invest in the health of our forests going forward, and it is not going to be inexpensive,” Lester said. But, he also added, “fighting fires, that is not inexpensive at all.”
It’s more complicated than just performing prescribed burns on as many forests as possible. Prescribed burns are certainly one of the strategies that foresters use, though they are severely limited by weather conditions that give foresters control over the fire. Even before they lay down the first flame, teams have to go in and manually remove excess fuel loads such as dead and downed trees. Otherwise, the density of the forest will result in high-intensity fires that harm the land more than they heal it.
Additionally, communities and even the state at large need to have discussions on what values they want to focus on most, Lester says. Often that means protecting water supply drainages and systems, which can become polluted when high-intensity fires shed mass amounts of ash. It also usually means protecting towns and even individual houses.
“We could evacuate Colorado, but I don’t think that’s the solution any of us are going to go for,” Lester said. “I certainly am not.”
Colorado’s natural lands draw thousands of people to the state every year, whether for tourism or residence. And now half the state’s population lives in the wildland-urban interface, often called the WUI, where human development and wilderness collide. Continuing the status quo of how forests are currently managed, Lester says, is just not an option anymore.
“The firefighters out there do a damn good job, and they have my utmost appreciation,” Lester said, “but we’re giving them an impossible task.”