Code Red: The lack of snow this winter wasn’t just bad for skiing. Colorado is primed for an epic wildfire season.

When volunteer firefighter Dan Hatlestad got a page reporting smoke on Chester Road in Jefferson County at 2:30 p.m. on March 26, he wasn’t concerned. Hatlestad knew that several days previously, the Colorado State Forest Service had conducted a prescribed burn—a forest management technique that clears out flammable woody debris—on nearby land owned by Denver Water, a public utility serving 1.3 million residents. Smoke would be normal.

After 32 years fighting fires, Hatlestad understood that it was common for residents to see or smell smoke after a prescribed burn. Nonetheless, the Inter-Canyon Fire/Rescue investigates any and every report of smoke, so Hatlestad changed into his fire-resistant shirt and pants, laced up his heavy-duty leather boots, grabbed his protective eyewear and donned a red hardhat—the color signifying his authority as a crew boss. As Hatlestad walked out the door, he had no idea that he wouldn’t return again for 13 hours, or that he was about to dedicate seven days of his life to fighting the fire.

“It was the most intense and rapidly expanding wildland fire that I have ever been involved with,” he says.

The Lower North Fork fire, a prescribed burn-gone-bad, was a sobering early start to the 2012 Colorado Wildfire Season. The unexpected fire blackened six square miles, damaged or destroyed two-dozen homes and displaced hundreds of residents, killing three. Unfortunately, the conditions that caused the prescribed burn to “escape” into a deadly wildfire—hot, dry weather, high winds and an overabundance of flammable forest matter (aptly called “fuel” within the industry)—look to be the norm for this season.

Governor John Hickenlooper responded by suspending all further prescribed burns on state land. Then the Jefferson County Sheriff enacted a ban on all fires, including campfires, fireworks and smoking anyplace outdoors that is not barren or cleared of all combustible material within a three-foot radius. Other jurisdictions followed with similar bans, including Adams, Arapahoe, Arvada, Boulder, Castle Rock, Denver Mountain Parks, Eagle, Englewood, Gilpin and Golden. As authorities gear up for what could be the worst wildfire season in a decade, many residents are wondering how we got to this point, and what, if anything, can be done.

LET IT BURN?

“You have to remember, fire is a good thing,” says Bret Gibson, Fire Chief at the Four Mile Fire Department. “Farmers use it to clear the old crops off their land, without having to till—a process that breaks up all the roots and gave you the dust bowl of the 1930’s. They also use it for water efficiency, to burn along their irrigation ditches so the water doesn’t get all used up by the weeds.”

Ironically, fire is also critical for forest health. According to Gibson, the reason forest fires are so devastating these days is because agencies across the West spent a century suppressing all fires before realizing their ecological importance. The result is overstocked forests full of highly flammable fuel in the form of dead trees, downed branches and dried needles, as well as an overabundance of smaller trees, seedlings and saplings in the forest understory. In other words, the kind of organic material that ignites fast and hot, blazing all the way up into the canopy—a condition known as a crown fire—where it can destroy otherwise healthy adult trees and spread out of control to communities in the wildland-urban interface.

In a healthy, low-elevation ponderosa pine forests—the kind that grow adjacent to communities along the Front Range—a “good” fire stays on the forest floor, and works like a vacuum cleaner, burning up dead wood, fallen needles and young trees that are overcrowding the understory. The result is an even healthier forest, according to Greg Aplet, Ph.D., a senior forest scientist and the Director of Ecology at the Central Rockies Regional Office of The Wilderness Society. Fires are natural housekeepers, creating a more open forest where sunlight and rain can reach the ground and trees aren’t overcrowded—a stressor that makes them more susceptible to infestations like the mountain pine beetle.

A TOUGH LESSON

“The ideal situation,” says Aplet, “is if fires could burn harmlessly through the forest floor without burning homes, so you get the beneficial effects to the ecosystem without the concern.” But Colorado’s long history of fire suppression has left our forests too stocked with fuel for that type of burn to be safe. In most cases, the fire would erupt into the crown—a danger not only for adult trees, but humans and homes situated nearby.

Gibson knows the risks all too well. His department is located in Four Mile Canyon, a wildland-urban interface five miles west of Boulder. A wildfire in the fall of 2010 took more than a week to fully control, burning ten square miles, 169 homes and displacing hundreds of Boulder County foothills residents before it was through. The cost of fighting it was pegged at almost $10 million, and insurance claims totaled an estimated $217 million, making it the most expensive wildfire in Colorado history.

“Imagine that no one had taken out the trash in 100 years, and you start to get a sense for the amount of forest debris that had built up to fuel that fire,” Gibson says. Interestingly, the hardest lessons from the Four Mile Canyon Fire weren’t about forest health (or lack thereof), but rather personal responsibly. A U.S. Forest Service Report, conducted at the request of Senator Mark Udall, claimed that 80 percent of the homes destroyed by the fire were ignited by fast-moving surface fire, not raging crown fires. The disturbing implication is that some of the homes could have been spared had the residents followed guidelines for proactively protecting them against wildfire (see Sidebar).

“We can yell at the Forest Service for starting fires like Lower North Fork, or not having the resources to keep our forests clear and healthy like Four Mile, but for every home that burns down, the responsibility lies partially with the homeowner,” Gibson says. “If you live in a wildland-urban interface, fires will happen. You can’t build a wood-sided home, or stack firewood against your house or leave dried pine needles in your gutters. We take very little responsibility to protect our own homes and point fingers very rapidly at others.”

JUST HEATING UP?

As this article went to print, the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center (RMACC) in Lakewood was finalizing its predictions for this year’s wildfire season. According to fire meteorologist Tim Mathewson, the variables don’t look good for Colorado. One of the biggest reasons is lack of snow.

“We’re at just 38 percent of the average snowpack state-wide,” he says. “There’s virtually no snow left, and the snow that we do have is locked up high at the pass level and confined to north facing slopes.” Without snow in the spring, forest fuels have a longer period to dry out, thus becoming more receptive to carrying fire come June. Mathewson blames record warmth in March for depleting what little snowpack was left following a disappointing ski season.

Another risk factor is the lack of rain this spring. Mathewson says that precipitation across the state was painfully absent in the month of March—anywhere from 0 to 25 percent of average. Denver experienced the driest March on record, and the second warmest. Like lack of snow, these conditions allow fuels to dry out faster, and coupled with intensifying and severe drought conditions in many regions of the state, favor wildfire.

Thankfully, the areas east of the Divide, including the Front Range, picked up some precipitation in April, and went into what’s called a “green-up,” spawning new grass and increasing moisture levels in existing live vegetation—a condition that has a temporary suppressing effect on wildfire. Mathewson and his colleagues plan on labeling the region as having an “average” wildfire risk for 2012, which means we’ll experience fire, but not any more or less than average. The Western Slope, on the other hand, experienced below average precipitation in April, with long-range outlooks indicating little if any improvement for the remainder of the spring, earning it an “above average” risk.

“We know where we are right now,” says Mathewson, “but the more important part is where we’re going. Fire season is dependent not only on these variables, but also one big unknown—ignition. Be it from lightning or humans, ignition is what will ultimately determine the outcome of wildfire season.”

In the meantime, folks like Dan Hatlestad and Bret Gibson are at the ready. Are you? •

what about beetle kill?

The sight of dead, brown, dried-out lodgepole pine trees dominating sections of the landscape in many of our mountain towns has to make you wonder… isn’t that just a bunch of kindling waiting to erupt into flames? Not necessarily, says Aplet. As you move up in elevation, out of the ponderosa pine forests of the Front Range and into the lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests of the mountains, conditions are wetter and colder, and therefore less conducive to fire. “Fires are not as prevalent in lodgepole pine ecosystems, and the pine beetle doesn’t change that,” Aplet says. Further, since needles fall from dead trees, a pine beetle outbreak reduces fuel in the canopy, which mitigates the risk of crown fires. That’s not to say that the mountain pine beetle is a good thing. “We don’t really have the ability to conduct crown fire experiments, so much of the inquiry into fire behavior in beetle-kill forests is done using computer models that are notoriously simplified and can’t take into account all the variables,” explains Aplet. “So there is still a lot we don’t know.”