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National fire threat level rises as Colo. officials seek more help to manage fire- prone forests

Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, June 29, 2012

The national fire preparedness level rose from 3 to 4 yesterday, signaling a heavier strain on federal resources as wildfires continued to rage throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

In Colorado, the Waldo Canyon fire on the outskirts of Colorado Springs continued to blaze out of control yesterday with firefighters able to contain 5 percent of it. Spot fires continued to burn in a northeastern subdivision of the city where fire first exploded over containment lines Tuesday night.

While firefighters and officials have been unable to assess the area directly, local estimates put the number of damaged buildings in the hundreds. Some 35,000 residents have been evacuated from the city.

To the north, the High Park fire northwest of Fort Collins held at 87,284 acres, with containment increasing from 65 to 75 percent.

An Air Force C-130 plane drops a plume of sticky fire retardant near Colorado Springs in an attempt to limit damage to homes in Waldo Canyon, Colo. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Meanwhile, grass fires in Montana have spread quickly, consuming dozens of houses. Other large fires burned throughout the day in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Some 1.6 million acres has been burned so far this year, federal records show. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) estimates that $119 million has been spent so far battling the blazes.

A spokeswoman for the NIFC said that, because crews were constantly coming on and off shifts, it was impossible to give an exact estimate as to the number of firefighters or resources deployed at any one time. But according to NIFC records, the national preparedness level only rises to 4 when 60 percent of federal crews are deployed around the country.

According to a White House brief, President Obama spoke with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach yesterday by phone, reaffirming the federal government's commitment to deploy all necessary federal resources.

A 'critical' need for aggressive management

The president is expected to visit Colorado Springs today to survey the damage.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz (D), who represents Colorado District 5 and leads the state Senate Agriculture Committee, said the fires highlighted an urgent need for more aggressive forest management that would require the revitalization of the Colorado's logging industry.

She said the state also needs federal help to inject life into a biofuels industry that could help bring market forces to bear on a huge amount of excess brush and dead trees that have accumulated for decades in Colorado's forests.

"It's critical -- it's a truly pressing issue -- that the state, the federal government and the private sector work together to strategically remove fuels and dead timber from around our communities," Schwartz said.

Since well before the current spate of fires scorched her state, Schwartz has tried to bring attention to the need to increase federal commitment to forest management. She hoped the spreading fires in her state and elsewhere would catch the attention of other lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol.

Huge stands of dead trees

Sixty years of fire suppression has allowed the ponderosa forests of the Rockies to swell in density. "There are places in this state where you have 1,000 stands of trees where there should only be 40," Schwartz said. "That significant overgrowth and lack of diversity has created a very unhealthy
environment."

The sheer biomass of those forests has strained water resources during recent periods of warmth and drought, rendering the trees ready hosts for pine beetle outbreaks and drought-induced mortality.

Populations of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), a species of bark beetle native to Colorado, have exploded amid forests of drought-stricken trees, accelerating the die-off. Experts say rising temperatures have allowed the bugs to spread. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com

There is currently some 4 million acres of standing dead timber in the state, Schwartz said.

Neither continued suppression nor uncontrolled burning is an acceptable solution to the problem, she added. Only aggressive forest management -- thinning of trees and clearing of ground cover -- will return the forests to a safe level of vegetation. And for that, state and federal governments will have to re- engage the private sector, she said.

"We have a limited and nonproductive timber industry. We lack viable means for biomass energy generation. We need to put the necessary economic incentives in place to make these industries viable," she said.

Underpinning the current crisis is the realization that hot, dry conditions may be increasingly the norm, Schwartz added. "Because we are looking at these increased temperatures, all of our vegetation is at risk. Our trees have become more vulnerable. And we will need to meet these challenges with a proportional commitment of resources."


Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202-628-6500

 

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Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202-628-6500.


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