Over the next decade, the U.S. Forest Service and its partners plan to carry out a series of prescribed burns in Northern Colorado. These scheduled blazes are all in an effort to protect the area’s communities and its river, which supplies about 300,00 people with water.
According to a survey from the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils Inc., more than 3 million acres were treated with prescribed fire in Western states in 2017. That’s a significant increase from the 2 million acres in 2011. Both private landowners, who own about 58% of the country’s forests, and public organizations are using this method of wildlife protection all across the Western United States.
The fire season in Colorado alone last year saw the burning of over 819 square miles of the state. It cost over $40 million to suppress the blazes. Five of the state’s 20 largest fires in history burned last year and all 20 have occurred within the last 19 years.
Despite these staggering statistics, prescribed burns are a more controversial method of wildfire prevention. The intentional fires are meant to improve wildlife habitats of the planet’s 100,000 species of natural wood by making room for new growth. Prescribed burns also create space for firefighters to defend nearby residents from wildfires. However, the region’s mountains, dry climate, and high levels of air pollution make it difficult to safely set these fires.
In 2012, the Colorado State Forest Service started a burn near Denver that ended in the deaths of three people. The governor at the time, John Hickenlooper, suspended prescribed burns in the state after the incident.
Experts who study public lands maintain that prescribed burns are an essential step in protecting the forests that are home to a countless number of animals and in which 44.9 million people love to hike. When burn bosses can successfully control low-intensity fires, they can clear out large swaths of trees and undergrowth in a quick and inexpensive manner.
“Prescribed fire is a critical tool, because it’s the most effective way to reduce fuels to make people and communities safe. It also is the only way to restore ecological processes in the forest,” said Brett Wolk, assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute.
According to The Denver Post, fire experts are predicting a less severe wildfire season in Colorado this year. The large amounts of snow in the mountains and forecasts of average summer temperatures mean that the state is likely to only see about 6,000 fires burning 100,000 acres of land.
Coloradans shouldn’t expect this brief reprieve to be the norm in the decades to come. Climate scientists are predicting that by 2050, the area that forest fires burn across the western U.S. every year will at least double, and potentially quadruple, from the current span.
According to the scientists, this steep increase in just about 30 years will be a result of global warming. Despite efforts from lawmakers and individual citizens alike to promote better environmental practices, there are no current solutions to slowing down global warming. While small actions like using a reusable bag can make a minor difference from its lifespan that’s roughly equal to that of over 700 disposable plastic bags, it can’t stop the planet’s changing weather patterns.
In the face of these predictions, officials in western states know that traditional methods of fire fighting won’t be effective. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, CA, has said that there isn’t a number of trucks or helicopters the city can buy or amount of brush they can clear to prevent the city from eventually succumbing to fires. With frequent periods of drought and 10% of U.S. households wasting up to 90 gallons of water per day from plumbing leaks, there certainly isn’t enough water to put out the destructive blazes.
That won’t stop officials from trying. California lawmakers are seeking funding for four more Cal Fire fuel reduction crews to add to their current six. Although there is no official news of Colorado’s legislature proposing similar funding, the state continues to move forward with prescribed burns on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland.