Living with Wildfire

Fourmile Canyon Fire ignites on the next ridge.IMG_1098

We purchased our property in 2000, and completed our cabin in early 2002. We are surrounded by National Forest at 9000 feet. Our closest neighbors are a half mile away. I’m not sure I fully understood the risks of living at the wildland interface, but got a hint when I found a document in our closing packet in which the local fire chief called our building site “the no hope zone." The document went on to say that with a ¾ mile road through dense lodgepole pine in the National Forest to reach our house, fire fighters would be put at risk of being cut off with no exit if they tried to fight a fire threatening our house. 

Our building permit carried a number of conditions to mitigate that danger. We had to build numerous turnouts in the access road to keep the road clear if fire trucks came to our house. We had to install a fire fighting system on premises, with 3000 gallons of water storage and a fire pump, since we are on well water.

These warnings and conditions got my attention. After researching the matter, we installed an Intelagard foam fire suppression system. With this system, when fire encroaches, you activate the system by mixing their foam agent into a 500 gallon water tank. The result is a mixture that is 5% water, and you then spray down the house and 50 feet of surrounding vegetation. The foam will stick to glass windows, will stay for three days, and is biodegradable, so it will not leave a toxic mess. The stick to glass windows piece becomes important when I learned that radiant heat from a wildfire can ignite drapes and furniture without even breaking the window glass.

Fourmile Canyon fire destroyed 169 houses.IMG_6774

My concern for fire was compounded the spring after we completed the cabin. 2002 was a drought year, and many fires came to the Colorado mountains. My son and a crew were doing landscaping around the property, and we had a couple of painters up on the roof staining of the cabin. That afternoon, clouds gathered, and lightning and thunder began, without any rain. The painters, who happened to be volunteer firefighters, spotted smoke coming from our lower meadow, 500 feet below the cabin. They recognized this as a lightning fire, grabbed some shovels and rakes and bolted down the hill on foot. My son called the fire department, loaded some water on our Kawasaki Mule, and headed down the road, marking the way for the firefighters with signs to the lower meadow.

The two painters found a pine tree afire from the lightning, and began a trench about 20 feet in diameter  to keep the fire from spreading. By the time fire fighters got there, the painters had contained the small blaze and it was quickly extinguished. If we had not had workmen on the property, that fire would have not just threatened our cabin and property, but the surrounding homes and forest.

Later that summer, the Big Elk fire started in very steep terrain about ten miles from our cabin. We sat on our deck and watched pine trees ignite like roman candles as the fire burned for days. Three firefighters were killed when a tanker and a helicopter both crashed while fighting the fire. That same summer, the Haymen fire raged for nearly a month, and became the largest fire in Colorado history, burning 138,000 acres.

100 years of Bad Policy come Home to Roost

I came to understand that the crown fires that have become prevalent were the result of man made conditions. Drought, Global Warming, 100 years of bad policy have combined to create catastrophic conditions in the forests of the western US. I read a book recently called The Big Burn, by Timothy Egan. Egan traces the history of the US Forest Service, which Teddy Roosevelt created in 1905. The powerful interests that were exploiting the forests and extracting gold and other minerals viewed this as a threat to their economic interests. They fought tooth and nail to do away with this new idea. Roosevelt persisted, and set aside large tracts of the mountain west after travelling and seeing their natural wonder with the likes of John Muir.

Tankers arrive to fight the Fourmile Canyon fireIMG_6792

By 1910, Roosevelt had been succeeded by Taft, and the moneyed interests had their way in defunding and weakening the Forest Service. Then came the big burn, which destroyed 3 million acres in three days across Washington, Idaho and Montana. The Forest Service rangers found a reason for being. They organized the fight to save towns and forests from this blaze, and performed heroically. The public began to see the Forest Service as their protectors, in their role of fighting fire. From then on, the Forest Service enforced a policy of fighting all fires in the National Forest.

Fire has always been a natural part of forest ecology. The forests have grown unhealthy, overcrowded and deep in decaying fuels on the forest floor, that in a natural environment would be burned away every decade or two, clearing out fuel and opening up meadows. In that system, the fires mostly stay on the ground, burning at 800-900 degrees. Lodgepole pine trees produce cones that lay on the forest floor until a fire. At 800 degrees, the cones will open. As fire clears out the dense stand of Lodgepoles, the next generation will thrive in the open canopy, with the sunlight, water and nutrients to start afresh. Wildflowers and grasses will proliferate a year after such a burn.

Tanker dumps slurry foam on hot spots at the Fourmile Canyon fireIMG_6821

With the buildup of ladder fuels on the forest floor, now flames reach the branches and ignite the crowns of the trees. When crown fires erupt, the temperatures reach 1800 degrees. Fire fighting is greatly complicated, because water will evaporate before hitting the flames. The only way to stop a crown fire is to create a fire break, taking away fuel. Crown fires create a crust on the soil, and it can take 20 years for plants to break through.

Audubon Magazine ran a piece called The Perfect Firestorm. Here's a short quote:

Welcome to the new era of “megafires,” which rage with such intensity that no human force can put them out. Their main causes, climate change and fire suppression, are fueling a heated debate about how to stop them.

Helicopter departs after filling tank from lake to fight Fourmile Canyon fireIMG_6812

Fuel Reduction Projects

The heated debate has caused a change in policy. After a number of catastrophic fires across the mountain west during this drought, the Forest Service realized that the cost in dollars and human lives to fight these fires was unsustainable. They have begun to reintroduce fire into the forest ecology, and are now letting many more fires burn rather than automatically calling in the smoke jumpers.

They also began an initiative to reduce fuels in the forest, so we could avoid the crown fires that had been causing such damage. In 2003, the local officials began working on the James Creek Fuel Reduction Project. This project incorporated the National Forest around our home, and we got involved from the very beginning.

We went to numerous meeting with the Forest Service as they began to shape the prescriptions and create an environmental impact statement. Although we were wary of the treatments we heard described, especially mechanical thinning, we recognized the forests had become unhealthy and something had to be done.

For three years, we attended meetings and worked to find a win-win solution. Many of our neighbors reacted very negatively to the proposal. They had seen thinning efforts in the past that did not end well. I did not want to be antagonistic to the bureaucrats who were charged with creating a fuel reduction plan, but wanted to make sure to minimize the ecological damage caused by the treatment.

Smaller Copter fills 500 gallon bucket repeatedly to fight Fourmile Canyon fireIMG_6816

Forest Ag Plan

Around the same time, I got a call from Matt Tobler of Blue Mountain Environmental Consulting. Matt told me about a program the Colorado State Forest was conducting to encourage private landholders to put plans in place to improve the health and reduce fire danger in their forest land. We engaged Matt to create a ten-year prescription for thinning our forests.

View from our driveway before thinning for the Forest Ag planFrom Driveway-before

Here is the same area after thinningFire Mitigation

The program allowed us to be rezoned Agricultural for a decade, as long as we proved we spent the tax savings in carrying out the annual prescriptions in the plan. We are now seven years into the plan, and have a crew out taking down trees and thinning others for a week each fall. We began by creating a defensible space around the cabin, removing most pine trees, and removing limbs up 6 feet on remaining trees, to keep any fire on the ground.

In subsequent years, we have treated areas out to our property line, and down to our meadow 500 feet below. Over the course of ten years we will treat our whole property. I can now see how our forest is growing healthier. Opening in the canopy created space for flowers and grasses to grow where nothing but pine straw accumulated earlier. Deer, elk and moose now browse areas that previously only provided homes for squirrels and a few birds. And, the fire danger is significantly less in this forest.

Hand thinning on the boundary of our propertyThinning Boundary Rd

Boundary road after thinningAfter thinning

Trees removed during thinning, to become fence rails and firewoodDown logs

Slash piles are visible, but hand thinning leaves the land in better shape, not devastated.Thinning below the drive

So, at the same time I was going to public meetings about the Forest Service’s plans for thinning the public lands that surround our place, I was also doing fire mitigation work here, and learning more than I ever wanted to know about forest ecology. What I learned made me much more informed as we tried to shape the Forest Service’s plans to minimize the collateral damage done to the environment as they worked to thin the forests.

The Plan Emerges

After completing their environmental assessment, the Forest Service published three different plans, and the public was offered a comment period to suggest changes. I and many of my neighbors submitted extensive comments, but not much changed in the plans. One change did come about. The original plan called for creating 15-25 foot crown spacing in the forest. Given the dense nature of these forests, the practical effect of this plan would be to remove ⅔ of the trees. The locals went ballistic.

We get heavy winds up here at 9000 feet. Gusts over 100 miles an hour in the winter are not unusual. The long-time residents pointed out that the last time thinning of that magnitude was done here, the next winter, most of the remaining trees blew down. The term they use is windfirmness. Lodgepoles grow close together, with shallow roots. It takes a whole stand to be windfirm. No individual trees could withstand the force of these winds. I give the Forest Service credit. They changed the plan to take no more than 30% of the trees out in a first pass, with plans to come back in a few years to thin again.

Even after these changes, I found the plan unacceptable. The bureaucrats kept saying, in 50 years, you won’t see any signs or scarring from this thinning work. They took the long view, and in so doing, could justify leaving a huge visual mess that would disappear in a few decades. My problem was that the long view meant I would be stuck with a horrible mess to look at in the forests where we hike and ski for the rest of my life. The final plan for the mountain behind our house prescribed mechanical treatment including a 5 acre patch cut on our property line, clearly visible from the cabin, with slash piles ¼ acre in size. They would build a road along our property up to the top of the mountain to allow access.  The ¾ mile road we use as a driveway would go right through this devastation. I began to consider seeking redress in the courts.

We attended one more meeting. Our regional forester, Christina Walsh was attending. At the meeting, I asked Ms. Walsh if it might be possible for us to do a private/public partnership for the treatment of the mountain behind our cabin. I suggested that I might be willing to invest as much as $20,000 in reducing the environmental impact by doing hand-thinning in lieu of the mechanical thinning and patch cuts. “I don’t know,” she responded, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ll have to look into it.”  I then told her, “Well, I figure it will cost me at least that much to sue you and make you guys do the right thing, and I would rather invest that money in a solution, rather than a legal fight.” The conversation promptly ended. Yet, when the final plan appeared, the 5 acre patch cuts on the half of the mountain adjacent to our property disappeared. So, I dropped the matter.

Executing on the Plan

For five years now, we have been watching the treatments up and down the road near us. The part that was hand thinned looks decent after a couple of years. Last year, they began mechanical thinning in the forest closer to our place. Now, the environmental destruction becomes much more severe. The clearing is taking the form of very unnatural looking stripes down the sides of mountains, a strip 50-50 feet wide with no trees, alternating with a strip of trees. You can see the emerging pattern in these pictures.

Massive machines commence mechanical thinning near the cabinMega Machines

Two stories tall

Huge machines are churning up the forest floor. This damage will take decades to heal. We have very thin topsoil up here at 9000 feet, and only have 50 frost free days a year. So, things grow very slowly, and where there is no topsoil, nothing grows at all. I have places where mining activity occurred on my property, and nothing grows today. Yet, when I spread a thin layer of topsoil, within a couple of years all sorts of flowers, shrubs and grasses are growing.

Building roads to allow logging trucks and chippers to access the forestChains to tear up the soil

I came up the road the other evening, and found the road blocked by a tractor-trailor with one of the big machines loaded. They were pressure washing mud and grease off the tracks into the road. That's just not right, but they told me the Forest Service told them to do it.

Our other fear is the road network being created. There has been an explosion of Off-Highway Vehicles, four-wheelers and motorcycles in the forests of the Front Range. Every new road invites further damage from this off-road traffic. I see the erosion caused by this activity, and know that nothing will grow for decades under these conditions.

Neighbors voice their concernStop Logging

Clearcut Forests

Agree with the Vision, Disagree with the Tactics

I have learned that you can have a conflict of vision, and that is hard to overcome. Many of my neighbors have not been sold on the need for the thinning being done. They don’t see the unhealth of the forest that the bureaucrats are so intent to change.

I can see the vision of a healthy forest, but do not agree with the tactics they have chosen to achieve the vision. I look at the ridiculously low price per acre that the Forest Service has budgeted for the thinning, and the only way to accomplish it is to run roughshod over the environment.

The plan creates large openings, staging areas where logs and brush are stacked up for processing.Plan includes 5 acre clear cuts

When these piles are removed, this is what remains.They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Between the loss of topsoil, and the layer of chips, nothing will grow here for years.They paved paradise, put in a parking lot

Stripes being cut into the woods.

Cutting stripes in the forest

Stripes and Patch Cuts seen from the mountain behind our cabin.Forest Thinning Gold Lake Rd

I am spending much more per acre, in order to leave a visually acceptable result. Flowers are growing, aspens are proliferating, the deer and elk are browsing the areas I've thinned.

The sad fact is that there is so much forest to be thinned, and with our federal government looking to cut budgets, there is now way they will spend the money to do this work in environmentally sensitive ways. It seems to me their approach is penny wise, but pound foolish.

The mountain behind our cabin before treatment. Next year they come to our mountain.Burnt Mountain before

Four Mile Fire builds a sense of Urgency

Last September, the FourmIle Canyon Fire broke out on the next ridge over from us. The pictures in this article come from this fire. We saw the smoke billowing as the fire took hold. We were transfixed as the fire spread, and flames appeared on the ridgeline. Thank God, the winds were blowing away from us, and the fire did not come this way. We were within a mile of the evacuation zone. We watched planes fly over dumping foam on the fire. Helicopters came and got water from the lake close by, to drop on the flames. By the time it was put out, the fire had destroyed 169 homes, making it the most destructive in Colorado history.

Fourmile Canyon Fire comes to the edge of historic Gold HillFourmile Canyon Burn

The week before it blew up, I had seventy Ponderosa Pine trees taken out of the slope in front of the cabin, between us and the fire. I was so glad for the thinning we had done to protect our home and property. 

Fourmile Canyon Fire burns to Gold Hill RoadFourmile Canyon Burn

The forests are unhealthy. Crown fires are inevitable given these conditions. Doing nothing is not a viable option. But, that doesn’t mean I agree with the environmentally insensitive way the work is being done. Doing this work on the cheap leaves too much damage in its wake. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

Ridge behind Gold Hill is scorchedGold Hill

These last pictures are views as you drive down Sunshine Canyon from Gold Hill towards BoulderFourmile Canyon Burn

Burned Ridges

Rebuilding after fire

Burned out home

What me worry?