In more than 30 years, it’s hard to remember wildfire season starting so early. The combination of dry fuels and high winds has led to a dangerous situation. This year, especially, it’s worth being extra vigilant.
Without human intervention, healthy forests burn. It’s a natural process. The seeds of some types of trees even need fire to germinate. But since people have moved into the foothills, a longstanding policy of fire suppression has interrupted this natural burning process, leading to greater accumulation of fuels and therefore greater fire hazard.
Those of us who live in the wildland-urban interface (or, as foresters call it, the “red zone”) have to recognize that in the absence of fire, the only way to manage fuels is through mechanical removal. Some people look at a dense stand of ponderosa pine and loathe the idea of cutting down a single one. The reality is, this kind of density doesn’t occur naturally — it’s a function of decades of human intervention.
When I worked at the Department of Natural Resources, I attended a tour of the area of the Buffalo Creek Fire, which occurred in 1996. A forester showed how, in an area of extreme fuel accumulation, the fire jumped over a two-lane road. A bit further in, he explained that a bike path slowed the fire down. And even further in, he showed how a previously conducted controlled burn stopped the fire in its tracks. The point was clear: Fuel density accelerates the spread of wildfires.
Every year, millions of dollars are spent fighting catastrophic wildfires and mitigating their aftermath. Fires like Hayman and Hi Meadow have lasting and negative effects on human life, property, wildlife, water quality and habitat. We’re only just a lightning strike or carelessly flicked cigarette away from another one.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that our community, like most mountain communities throughout the West, is protected primarily by volunteers. Volunteer firefighters must endure rigorous, time-consuming training before even being able to answer a call. In many cases, they pay for their own personal protective equipment out of their pockets. And all are willing to risk their lives to protect their neighbors.
Their presence may well mean the difference between a 1- or 2-acre burn and a fire that consumes tens of thousands of acres. We owe a debt of gratitude to the volunteer firefighters who help keep us safe.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”