Colorados ailing forests: Will Rx fire be a climate change casualty?

The federal suspension of prescribed burns pending a review of how recent fires lit during extreme drought escaped boundaries is reverberating in the West — and complicating Colorado efforts to revive ailing forests and reduce the severity of wildfires.

Foresters for years have favored more, not less, deliberate controlled burning as the most affordable and ecologically-sound way to boost forest and grassland resilience. The 90-day pause that U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has declared — responding to recent mishaps where prescribed fires blew out of control — will delay projects to reduce risk across 14,000 acres in Colorado and 18,500 acres in the Rocky Mountain region, according to federal data obtained by the Denver Post. Among those projects may be the planned burns to protect threatened water supplies for Colorado Springs and Aurora.

The federal halt also is raising concerns at a deeper level that climate warming and extreme aridity increasingly may jeopardize the use of prescribed fire due to safety concerns.

Colorado “supports the use of prescribed fire as a management tool, but it has to be done at the right time, in the right place, and with the right resources,” Colorado’s Chief of Wildland Fire Management Vaughn Jones said. “We need to be able to utilize all tools in the toolbox to address the issues of wildland fire…..Any decisions made about continued use, or pausing the use of prescribed fire, need to be made by individual agencies based on their program and internal policy.”

The suspension through this summer means Colorado agencies may not be able to take advantage of the past week’s wet spell, which brought snow in mountains that could allow prescribed fires under optimal conditions.

Forest stewards and ecologists are “feeling hamstrung by this,” said Greg Aplet, senior forest scientist for the Wilderness Society. However, most remain confident the three-month review will vindicate the ecological and economic benefits of prescribed fire for restoring overly-thick forests by mimicking suppressed natural processes. “Prescribed fires are an essential tool,” Aplet said.

“My hope is that this review shows we’re not investing enough in prescribed fire. We need to invest enough resources so that we’re not doing it on the cheap, so that we have the resources to handle prescribed fire, so that we can do it right.”

In recent years, Forest Service officials responsible for vast public lands concentrated in the West have been ramping up use of prescribed fires, in partnership with state and local agencies, in a scramble to re-balance forest tree mixes that currently favor ruinous megafires.

But recent prescribed fires done on arid land during a windy spring in New Mexico, and possibly also in southwestern Colorado, escaped control boundaries.

New Mexico’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this month demanded a halt and went public with her concerns about how federal agencies were conducting prescribed burns.  “We’re done,” she declared at a news conference. Controlled burns have become too dangerous due to heat waves and high wind that have primed forests for big burns, she and others contend. The Forest Service must improve its practices, she said, in response to climate-induced extreme conditions.

The pause may delay projects including work to protect water supplies.

In western Colorado, federal land managers and state partners for more than a year have been preparing to thin forests south of Twin Lakes mountain reservoirs that supply the water for residents of Colorado Springs, Aurora and other municipalities. This watershed now is threatened by wildfires and follow-on erosion and landslides.

Forest Service officials have planned a Twin Lakes Vegetation Management Project that includes prescribed fires to treat 4,253 acres of public land, according to agency documents. “Wildfires that have occurred adjacent to other reservoirs have damaged infrastructure and downstream improvements, while increasing erosion and sedimentation into the reservoirs,” a USFS document said. Forests near Twin Lakes “have a high dead and down component and are susceptible to high intensity wildfire. There is a need to mitigate the potential impacts from high intensity wildfire to the watershed, reservoir, historic heritage properties, and other resources.”

Denver-based Forest Service officials declined to discuss potentially delayed work and referred emailed queries to agency headquarters in Washington D.C.

Nationwide, the Forest Service conducts roughly 4,500 prescribed fires a year across 1.4 million acres of public land —  a figure that reflects stepped-up use of prescribed fire.

In ordering the pause, Moore cited news reports about prescribed fire mishaps where flames flared and escaped control, and he referred to climate warming.

“Wildfires are increasingly extreme because of climate change, drought and dry fuels across many parts of the country,” his public statement posted on an agency website said.

Moore downplayed the impact of the 90-day pause pending a review of protocols, saying the bulk of prescribed fires are conducted between September and May, when fire risks traditionally have been lower due to cooler temperatures and snow.

“Prescribed burn operations are essential tools managers need to protect communities and first responders, improve forest conditions and reduce the threat of extreme fires,” he said, adding that controlled burns must resume when protocols are improved.

“It is imperative for the Forest Service and partners to work together to increase fuels treatments by up to four times current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments.”

Colorado’s recent 373-acre Simms wildfire south of Montrose broke out around May 19 – three days after a prescribed 200-acre burn on federally-managed forest in the area. A Forest Service posting addressing the Simms fire on Facebook confirmed that “earlier in the week a prescribed burn was conducted in the vicinity which was monitored daily.”  The cause of the Simms fire remains under investigation.  At least one home was destroyed, and compensation issues loom here as in neighboring New Mexico.

In New Mexico, a prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas escaped in early April. It became part of the Calf Canyon Fire that broke out around April 19 in an area where, three months ago, another prescribed fire also was lit. Wildfires in New Mexico over the past six weeks have burned more than 311,000 acres and destroyed more than 600 homes and other structures. Costs of trying to suppress these fires were approaching $100 million – let alone compensation for damage.

Landscape conditions favoring intense fires have expanded across the southwestern United States.  Mountain snowpack levels in Colorado, even after a recent wet spell, still lagged Tuesday at 65% of the norm for this time of year, with southern Colorado’s Upper Rio Grande River basin still at 21% of the norm and main river basins in southwestern Colorado at 5%.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bulletins this week warned of increasingly perilous conditions. Federal drought monitoring has found “extreme and exceptional” conditions persisting in the West for the third summer in a row. The closely-watched Upper Colorado River basin had snowpack around 54% of the norm for this time of year and NOAA officials warned of worsening exceptional drought in New Mexico as fires burned.

The planned prescribed burns in Colorado over the next 90 days that now will be delayed might not all have been done — only “where and when the right opportunities and conditions” were present, Forest Service spokeswoman Michelle Burnett said in an emailed response.

So far this year in Colorado, data show prescribed fires were done to reduce fire risk on 4,924 acres in Colorado and 6,041 in the Rocky Mountain region. On average between 2017 and 2021, controlled burns were done to reduce risk on 16,000 acres a year in Colorado.

“We understand that using methods like prescribed fire is getting more difficult in some parts of the country since the weather conditions that meet the prescription parameters are less frequent. More than ever, we are looking for tools to reduce fire hazards,” Burnett said. “Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”

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