The wildfires Colorado is experiencing today were predictable and preventable. The impacts of these fires have been evident for the past month. Nationally, wildfires have blackened over 7.5 million acres this season. In Colorado, wildfires have burned approximately 300,000 acres with suppression costs approaching $150 million. Loss of property, watershed and economic impacts could well exceed 10 to 20 times these suppression costs.
Today more than half of Coloradans live in areas at risk to wildfires. With nearly 3 million people living in the wildland-urban interface, we want our lives and property protected. This means wildfires are suppressed. Historically, wildfires burned across our landscape with low intensity fires, keeping litter and fuels at low levels, just cleaning up our forests. Since we have not replaced what fire used to do, our forest lands have become clogged with vegetation. Now when fires start, the unnatural fuels in our forests create catastrophic flames that destroy personal property, place lives at risk, impact our critical watersheds, businesses, and our forest ecosystems. And now that our climate seems to be changing to something warmer and drier, Colorado wildfires are likely to get worse and worse.
Colorado has approximately 24 million acres of forest lands. The General Accounting Office (GAO) over two decades reported that “the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of forests in the West is the over-accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires.” Forest conditions are still the same today. Passive management policies and continuous legal actions of the past 50 years have resulted in unprecedented build-up of fuels in Colorado’s forests, which makes the volatility and severity of the inevitable wildfires that follow, easy to predict.
Colorado needs a conservation vision to keep our forests, watersheds, and communities healthy, sustainable, and more resilient to disturbances. Active stewardship is key. Doing nothing means nothing ever changes. Thus, we find ourselves in the current mess.
Leave no doubt, the health of Colorado’s forests is declining. Over 5 million acres have been devastated by mountain pine beetle or spruce bark beetle, leaving more than a billion dead trees on our forest landscape. Wildfires have destroyed lives and property, impacted air quality, wildlife habitat, watersheds, and communities needlessly. Forests in declining health, impact of changing climate, and the expanding wildland-urban interface has created a volatile mixture that has led to a growing crisis. Now is the time to step forward with a bold, active, concentrated effort to address the millions of acres of Colorado’s forests that need some type of restorative action. The goal of this restoration commitment is to help create healthy sustainable forests that are more resilient to disturbances so the linkage between forest and watershed health and community stability can be more fully realized.
We must change, or we’ll burn. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put out these devastating fires us.