For my hometown of Frisco, Colorado, the wildfire wake-up call came in June of 2002, when the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver scorched 138,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes. In a post-fire analysis, the American Planning Association concluded that a lack of "political will for regulation and government intervention" was one of the main reasons the fire had been so destructive.
I was in Steamboat Springs, about 150 miles away, when I saw the first wisps of smoke from the distant blaze. As my four-year-old son bobbed in front of me on his inflatable alligator in the pool, I thought about the new research I'd seen about forest fires in the era of accelerated global warming, and wondered what the Rockies would look like when Dylan reaches my age.
At the time, 2002 was the warmest and driest year in the state’s recorded history, and the Hayman Fire became by far the state’s largest. It didn’t directly threaten our region, but the intensity, speed, and size of the fire made it clear that any community within a few miles of large forest areas was at risk.
The fire was a game-changer, so guided largely by scientific input from the United States Forest Service, Summit County started studying wildfire protection, adaptation, mitigation, and resilience, learning some lessons that can benefit other communities at risk from wildfires.
Starting in 2004, I joined the grassroots Forest Health Task Force, both as a journalist and an interested citizen, and contributed information about new forest and fire research that might help our community plan for the future. The task force included private citizens, U.S. Forest Service experts, scientists, and representatives from Denver Water. Around us, fires grew bigger and more frequent.
With input from the task force, Summit County in 2006 finalized one of Colorado’s first Community Wildfire Protection Plans. It's a formal document that identifies at-risk areas based on surrounding fuel conditions, climate, and other factors, and spells out a plan of action down to the neighborhood level. Such plans are required to apply for many state and federal grants.
The process in Summit County included many sessions and hearings to solicit community input, facilitated by a skilled and professional staff. That outreach effort became the basis for a self-taxing ballot initiative that passed for the first time in 2008 and has since been extended with broad support.
Use Money From New Taxes to Mitigate Risks
Per the initiative, at a rate of $11 per $100,000 of property value ($54 on a $500,000 house), property owners paid $5.9 million annually to a community fund that’s administered by a wildfire council to help pay for mitigation projects.
Within a few years, buffers were cleared around the most at-risk neighborhoods, dead brush was thinned out of nearby forest areas, and access roads for firefighting were improved. On a broader scale, the community worked with state and U.S. forest experts to try and reduce the fire risk on thousands of acres of publicly owned national forest land around the towns.
There was controversy along the way. Some property owners protested against too much clearing, as did skiers and cyclists when their favorite trails were affected. At one point, the Town of Breckenridge marked all the beetle-afflicted trees in town and ordered property owners to cut them down.
Are thinned forests, where the ground dries out, more susceptible to the spread of fires? What are the consequences of action, or inaction, for wildlife and water resources, and for the climate itself? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but a dialogue about them helped the community find a common ground. That meant projects weren’t hindered by lawsuits, or by the administrative challenges that sometimes delay less collaborative efforts.
Remember: There's No One-Size-Fits-All Solution
Political leadership can make all the difference. In 2008, at the peak of the forest health crisis, Summit citizens elected Dan Gibbs, a wildland firefighter and public lands expert, as county commissioner.
Gibbs' knowledge and expertise helped shift the county’s political culture around wildfires, and drove institutional changes that will help sustain community efforts well beyond his elected term. That’s important because forests and the climate are a dynamic system, and resilience requires long-term and strategic planning.
That said, the process is not perfect. There’s still a disconnect between what the fire experts say and what the real estate market does, which means some people are still building new homes in fire-prone areas.
The Summit County approach may not work for less affluent communities that can't generate financial resources on the same scale. Policy experts say that smaller, rural, and less tourism-based communities should adopt regional resource-sharing measures, including good data to help show where the risks are and where management is most effective. In the vast scale of Western lands, it's sometimes hard to know where to start.
In Dire Cases, Consider Managed Retreat
There are some other communities around the West that have adopted programs similar to Summit County's, and a few of them have been tested by fires. In some situations, clear-cut or thinned forest buffers have helped slow the spread of flames; in other settings, thinned forests have dried out and become more prone to fires.
There's also still no definitive answer as to whether standing, bare beetle-killed trees are actually more or less flammable than drought-stricken green trees, with needles full of volatile, flammable substances.
These uncertainties mean that bolstering community resilience to fire requires flexible planning, plus a willingness to consider new science and to adjust actions when needed. Adaptive management requires a steady stream of near-real-time data to show changing conditions, so decision-makers have to be willing to invest in monitoring.
Forest and wildfire experts say we're still not giving enough consideration to the ecological role of fires, and that a long-term holistic vision of sustainable landscapes must include more use of managed fires to mimic natural pre-development conditions. That could help re-establish a balance between fire, climate, and landscapes.
Given that global warming will intensify the problem, it may even be worth thinking in terms of managed retreat, gradually abandoning some of the highest-risk areas as we recognize that the cost of trying to protect them doesn't make financial or ecological sense.
There are no simple solutions to the growing threat of wildfires in a warming world, but communities can take steps to protect themselves with a flexible, science-based, and collaborative approach. Grassroots involvement and good leadership can help make that happen.