With the tremendous loss of property and homes in the Colorado fires it is difficult to even discuss the benefits of wildfires in our forest. The type of fires and devastation we are seeing is exactly what natural and controlled fires are expected to prevent.
The Forest Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary this month and five years after its inception it had a policy of stopping any fire on public land by 10 AM the morning after it was discovered. Under President Clinton the government began a “prescribed fire” policy and it was accelerated under President Bush where controlled fires were the main tool in managing our nation’s forest.
In the devastating fires this summer we are seeing the results of the many years of fire suppression in our forest. The buildup of fuel over these many years has made these fires virtually impossible to control. The lack of moisture this winter and the hot dry summer was the catalyst for “the perfect storm” that we are experiencing.
The “controlled fires” remove low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. By reducing the competition for nutrients it allows the established trees to grow stronger and healthier. Hundreds of years ago our forest had fewer, yet larger, stronger trees. Clearing brush from the forest with low intensity flames can prevent large damaging wildfires that get out of control and completely destroy forest that we are seeing today.
Wildlands provide habitat and shelter to forest animals and birds. Fire clears wildlands of heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. When fire removes a thick stand of shrubs, the water supply is increased and with fewer plants absorbing water streams benefit.
Fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees and provide valuable nutrients that enrich the soil. More trees die each year from insect infestation and disease than from fires. This is exactly what we are dealing with here in Colorado, the bark beetle is killing millions of trees and those dead trees provide the fuel for mega fires. Fire kills these pest and keeps the forest healthy. Vegetation that is burned provides a rich source of nutrients for the plants and trees that survive.
Many plants and trees are actually fire dependent and need fire in order for life to continue. The Jack pine tree’s cones require the heat from a fire in order for its cone to pop open and release seed for regeneration. Some plants actually encourage fire by having leaves that are covered with flammable resins. Without fire, these plants and trees would eventually succumb to old age with no new generations to carry on the species.
In Colorado, as in all western states, we are dealing with the result of all these years of fire suppression. It is going to be a long and difficult process to bring our forest back to a healthy condition that nature intended. We have experienced the benefits of “controlled fire” near our ranch in Powderhorn, Colorado. Several years ago the Forest Service burned an area and the grass that resulted was amazing, in fact we shot a cow elk in the region and we had a difficult time finding her because the grass was so tall.
As this is written we have a fire in progress in the south end of Hinsdale County that is being allowed to burn because it is exactly the type of fire we are proposing in this article. It is a low intensity fire burning near the ground and is removing underbrush and providing nutrition for all surviving plants and trees. The fire is burning in an area where there was a fire several years ago and is a perfect example of how fire can be beneficial.
From news reports you would assume that most of Colorado is burning and quickly being destroyed. Actually only a tiny fraction of Colorado is on fire and the vast majority is as beautiful as ever with the streams full of fighting trout awaiting some angler to place a fly in the exact spot he is watching.
Colorado is open for business but we do ask that you be especially careful this year due to the dry summer.