Colorado wildfires: Fed, state leaders plot fight against climate-driven megafires

RED FEATHER LAKES — Wind blowing down from burned forests caressed a knoll where leaders from the Biden administration and Congress sat in camp chairs Friday, looking over charts showing massive new fire breaks along Colorado’s Front Range, mobilizing to combat cascading climate warming impacts.

Here is where last year’s 208,913-acre Cameron Peak wildfire, the largest in Colorado’s recorded history, ravaged woods long thought to be exceptionally resilient. Now rising risks of catastrophic erosion, flooding and mudslides have federal land managers on alert, warning of potentially irreversible damage.

And northern Colorado water supply managers are measuring turbidity three times higher than usual in the Poudre River as ash and sediment slumps into reservoirs.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a key player in carrying out President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, anchored this summit, calling the intensification of wildfires in the West a crisis and declaring “now is the time to dramatically infuse resources into forests.”

Americans “are becoming more sensitive to climate change, and forests play an incredibly important role. We’re committed to a net-zero U.S. agriculture industry by 2050, but that won’t make any difference if our forests continue to burn up… Hopefully people will see the necessity of investing,” Vilsack said in an interview.

“The country has waited too long,” he said. “The reality is we’ve spent an enormous sum of money putting fires out. If we had invested over the past 40 years we would not have to spend nearly as much money putting fires out. If you are a conservative and you are concerned about money, you can spend $1,400 an acre now or you can spend $50,000 an acre in the future to put out fires and then have to deal with the consequences.”

Gov. Jared Polis joined with the state’s agriculture, public safety and natural resources chiefs, raising concerns from long-term forest health to immediate spring risks.

“The state backs up local responders,” he said. “We’re ready to help where we can.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, whose legislation would devote $60 billion over a decade to boosting forest health and resilience around the West, pointed to the potential for creating thousands of new jobs.

And flanking Vilsack, U.S. Rep Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, has proposed a 21st Century Civilian Climate Corps to bring on workers. Neguse has forged, with Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, a new wildfire caucus structured to build bipartisan teamwork by requiring lawmakers who want to be members to enlist a colleague from their opposing political party.

“I didn’t anticipate the two largest wildfires in the history of our state would burn through my district at the same time,” Neguse said in an interview, referring to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires. “But I feel more optimistic now about our ability to take action on climate than I’ve ever been. Public sentiment seems to have shifted rapidly because of the visceral impacts of climate change.”

Ambitious forest-thinning goals

Newly-appointed U.S. Forest Service regional chief Frank Beum helped convene the summit, drawing in agency experts. And they in turn brought in soil experts, landowners, university scientists and grassroots community organizers.

The knoll where they sat beneath surviving Ponderosa pines served as an example of what strategic tree-thinning to create fire breaks can do. Had that forestry work not slowed flames around an adjacent Boy Scout camp and spiritual center, federal foresters said, evacuations might not have been possible.

Widespread tree-thinning under consideration would remove up to 70% of trees in some forests. The goal is to revitalize ailing, overly-dense forests and slow anticipated future megafires with contiguous breaks from the Wyoming border south along the booming Front Range urban corridor to Interstate 70 in Denver.

Foresters said such a project would require close cooperation with landowners — roughly 60% of land in Colorado is privately owned — due to heavy tree removal.

Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration at Colorado State University, said creating these breaks to manage wildfire risks would mean an overall loss of trees in forests. That would be necessary to combat climate change impacts, he and other experts told the leaders, because wildfires are growing and happening more often.

And foresters would have to commit to replanting strategically to maintain vegetation needed to help draw down carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping air pollution.

Bennet said he favors this effort but that it must be locally led.

“We are going to have long debates and discussions about how to do it. But there is no question that we need to do it in order to save what everybody loves about Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West,” Bennet said in an interview. “We risk losing that if we don’t get ahead of these fires.”

He cited as a model the recent tree-thinning done on Douglas County land abutting federally-managed forest. “It feels like you’re standing in a cathedral. It is beautiful. It is peaceful.”

Forest Service officials this week were seeking roughly $150 million to ramp up immediate wildfire burn-zone stabilization work, because regional resources at the start of the year barely reached $500,000.

“That money would help us secure the watersheds and reservoirs that are in great potential harm if we get one of those rain events,” deputy regional director Jacqueline Buchanan said, referring to the 2013 floods that caused havoc even when burn scars weren’t so big.

“What worries me? The potential for loss of life and lasting impacts that we will never be able to overcome,” Buchanan said. “We have critically important headwaters here in Colorado and this continuous onslaught of impacts could eventually take them to a place that we could not recover from. We need all the tools in the toolbox, and prescribed fire is hugely important.”

“Outside the realm of preparedness”

Much depends, all agreed, on lawmakers allocating funds.

Polis in the aftermath of last year’s record wildfires had contacted Vilsack directly, wanting increased federal attention to forests.

“Having them here, seeing the aftermath as well as the work we need to do collaboratively to prevent future fires and create natural barriers, is really critical,” Polis said during Friday’s gathering.

From the knoll, the leaders rode in a convey over a twisting back road into Poudre Canyon, where the Cameron Peak fire spread rapidly, threatening towns just west of Fort Collins, forcing an estimated 10,000 people to evacuate. They went to a firehouse in the frontline town of Rustic, where Poudre Canyon Fire District chief Hugh Collins and a dozen or so responders were waiting.

They needed a new ambulance, to replace their 20-year-old stalwart and be ready for emerging new threats. Fort Collins, Greeley and Northern Water officials said they needed help estimating future volumes of sediment they’re likely to have to deal with in reservoirs as wildfires break out more often and intensify.

Polis accompanied utility officials to Chambers Reservoir near the top of the canyon where Greeley Water crews have been working to cut down standing dead burned trees on steep mountainsides and lay them horizontally across slopes to try to control erosion. Northern Water officials said they’ll need to conduct aerial dropping of seeds and mulch to try to stabilize charred, eroding slopes around their reservoirs.

Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron told leaders the speed of the East Troublesome fire that burned through his community was horrific: “completely outside the realm of preparedness.”


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