Ten years ago on Jun 8th, carelessness by a forest service worker started the most devastating forest fire in Colorado history known as the Hayman Fire [pdf]. The burning of a relatively healthy but dry forest covered more than 133,000 acres and destroyed more than 550 buildings and charred the ground with such heat is was said to sterilize the soil. Colorado has the potential for a fire 30 times as devastating as the Hayman fire.
The wildfire fighting community was ill prepared to fight this fire that could be surrounded and was easily accessible from several airports, and a network of roads. Despite the accessibility, the Hayman fire raged across Colorado with 100 foot flames destroying everything in its path. Since then, federal, state and local officials have made some plans [pdf] for future fires.
Unfortunately, those future fires are not far off. The mountain pine beetle is killing trees in Colorado at the rate of 200,00-400,000 acres of trees each year. The total of dead tree acres now exceeds 5 million acres in Colorado with millions more acres in 7 other western states and even into Canada.
The US Forest Service has let contracts for the removal of dead trees in some areas as lumber. In other areas they pay companies to thin trees and burn the slashing creating clear cut lanes from which to fight future fires. These companies can take their trucks and skidders off the road to accomplish their contracts.
At the same time as the government pays contractors to salvage wood and thin forests, the private citizen must pay $45/cord for fire wood taken off of public lands. They are only allowed to drive off of the maintained roads the length of the vehicle. No mechanical equipment can be used to skid cut logs up to awaiting pick-ups. There are several hundred thousand families who burn wood as a heat source in Colorado. They could be used with good management to assist in the thinning and cutting of the millions of acres of dead trees all over Colorado’s forests at little or no expense to the government. When I presented this idea to the local Forest Service representative, they said there are rules they must abide by!
It might be a lightning strike or a careless hiker. Whatever the source of the spark, it will start off the most devastating fires ever known in North America. President Clinton closed 70% of the access roads used by firefighters and recreational users in the past. More than 3.7 million acres are designated wilderness areas where there are no access roads. Many more acres have been recommended for this designation by the current administration. Local Forest Service employees openly talk about how wide spread and how impossible it will be to stop this expected fire, but government bureaucracy prevents them from maximizing preventive efforts.
This is a disaster for everyone. The fire will release into the atmosphere uncounted tons of carbon dioxide as well as particulates that will affect the east coast of the US and beyond. All of those endangered plants and animals that wilderness areas were designated to protect will likely be gone. The extreme temperatures of burning dry pine will sterilize the soil and kill many of the seeds forests need to recover. We only need to look at the Hayman Fire to see a small part of the major impact these fires will have.
Today, the High Park fire east of FT Collins, CO expanded from 2,000 acres to 36,000 acres. Fire fighters have no estimate when it can be manageable. They cite the beetle killed pines as major contributors to the difficulty in controlling the fire. Other fires in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming draw wild land fire fighters from fighting the Colorado fires. Who will fight the fires when Colorado Burns!