CU expert: Intense western wildfire trend expected to worsen

Tipton wants more money for mitigation

An air tanker drops a load of fire retardant slurry above the High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins in 2012. Western wildfires have grown in size and intensity in recent decades. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file

An air tanker drops a load of fire retardant slurry above the High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins in 2012. Western wildfires have grown in size and intensity in recent decades.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Wildfires in the West have increased in size and intensity in recent decades, and that trend is expected to worsen as climate change continues, Tania Schoennagel, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado, said at a congressional hearing this week.

“That warming and drying is going to translate to more area burned across the West,” she said at an oversight hearing in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands. “We will also see more drought-related mortality.”

Much of this increase can be attributed to a rise in temperatures, increased drought and an earlier snowmelt, all of which lead to longer fire seasons and increased fire risk, she said.

Such droughts can also lead to attacks by the spruce beetle on forests. A CU Boulder study said droughts lower the trees’ defenses against the beetle.

Spruce beetle outbreaks have caused extensive tree mortality on more than 1.5 million acres in Colorado, according to the Colorado State Forest Service.

Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said in a news release he wants to put more power in the hands of states to better address their specific forestry needs, on both private and public land.

“Fire does not know a boundary, from private to state to federal lands,” Tipton said at the hearing.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study said the dry forests in the Southwest have shown a clear trend of increasing fire severity and more area burned by wildfires. The dryness of the wood means “it is going to rip up faster,” and Schoennagel said that includes the San Juan National Forest.

“That is a very fire-prone area,” she said.

The West Fork Complex was a series of fires in 2013 in the Wolf Creek Pass area. The lightning-caused fires burned nearly 110,000 acres, making it the second largest by area in state history.

While the San Juan National Forest is susceptible to fires, Schoennagel said this year is expected to be mild.

“The West is looking pretty good right now. We’ve had a good snowpack,” she said. “Even with warming trends, there is year-to-year variability.”

Tipton has introduced two bills on forest management in previous sessions. He said forest upkeep is cheaper than wildfire suppression and aftermath cleanup.

“It’s far more efficient and cost effective to proactively manage our forests,” Tipton said.

Schoennagel said residents near wooded areas of Southwest Colorado should mitigate fuels around their property to secure their homes. An increase in wildfires will mean more diligence, she said.

“People living in that area are going to have to assume that they will interact with wildfires throughout their lifetime in the coming years,” Schoennagel said. “They need to prepare now.”

The Senate passed an appropriations bill this month that includes $390 million for the Forest Service to bolster hazardous fuels reduction programs.

Josephine Peterson is a reporting intern for The Durango Herald in Washington, D.C., and a recent graduate of American University. Reach her at jpeterson@durangoherald.com and follow her on Twitter @jopeterson93.

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