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By Bill Trimarco
Special to The SUN
May is Wildfire Prevention Month in southwest Colorado. For a lot of us, it is hard to think about wildfires while watching all of this much-needed moisture soak into the ground.
The reality is that local firefighters have already had to respond to lightning strikes in the area. Our local San Juan snowpack is below average and a few spring storms are not enough to end a protracted drought cycle for the southwest. A little further downstream, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at low levels and California, the source of about half of the nation’s produce, is locked in extreme drought conditions. It is inevitable that we will have wildfires in our area this season. Sometimes they are beneficial and can help return our forests to the more resilient and sustainable state that is the long-term historic norm.
For centuries, wildfire played a regular role in managing the environment. Most of Pagosa Country residents live in what is, or once was, predominantly a ponderosa pine and Gambel oak ecosystem. Fires, mostly due to lightning strikes, usually occurred every six to 20 years. This regular regime of frequent fire kept oak brush in check. It also burned out a lot of competing tree species like white fir and juniper. With frequent fire, a lot of these types of vegetation would be burned out before they got a chance to compete with the ponderosa for scarce water and nutrients. Thick-barked ponderosa have a tolerance to ground fire and when they grow, their lower limbs die and fall, leaving little chance for fire to find a ladder up into the tree crowns. The ponderosa are very well adapted to our wildfire-prone environment.
Unfortunately, when European settlers arrived, things changed. For one, cattle were introduced that grazed down the grasses allowing ground fires to travel through and clean up the forest. After intensive logging in this area, another new policy came along: that of putting out forest fires. As well intentioned as that was, it has led to a situation where, for the last 130 years or so, the oak, fir, juniper and other less-adapted species have grown unchecked. They have formed a system of fuel ladders that can carry fire up into the tree crowns, where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to control. With all of this increased competition for moisture, the ponderosa in general are overcrowded and stunted.
When wildfire was allowed to do its cleanup work in the forest, an acre of healthy ponderosa forest would contain somewhere between 10 and 60 trees on average. A lot of these beautiful green hillsides that make up our views here have 300 to 600 trees per acre. These trees are stunted, overcrowded and often drought-stressed. They will never be able to grow into the big, yellow-barked giants that greeted the early settlers and loggers. What we are looking at now is a forest that is overloaded with fuel and not enough moisture in an area that sees thousands of lightning strikes every year.
We have added another feature into this scenario — homes. Over the last 30 years or so, large numbers of people have moved into wildfire prone areas. Where residences and wildlands meet is now being called the wildland urban interface, or WUI. Almost every home in this county is in the WUI.
Wildfire could threaten almost any one of us here, even if you live in town or don’t have trees or shrubs close by. The evening news jumps at the chance to film a raging wall of flame, as wildfires approach a community. The reality is that most of the homes lost to wildfire are never touched by that flame front. About 85 percent or more of the homes lost to wildfire are ignited by embers. When a fire is raging through the tree crowns, it creates a blizzard of embers that spreads one-quarter to one-half mile ahead of the fire. With the right winds, that distance can increase to miles.
The West Fork Complex Fire near here last year is a perfect example of embers being blown miles over the Continental Divide to start blazes on the other side. That fire crossed the divide three times and the complex it was a part of burned 109,000 acres. The towns of Creede and South Fork are still feeling the economic and environmental impacts of the West Fork Complex fires even though there were almost no structures lost.
Here in Pagosa, we were more fortunate. That fire started 12 miles from town and the wind blew it away from us. The odds are that won’t always be the case.
This month, our local firefighters and FireWise of Southwest Colorado would like to remind everyone that a lot can be done to minimize the spread and impact of wildfire in our communities. These are some events planned to raise public awareness:
• Pagosa Fire Protection District will have an entry in The Car Show at Pagosa on Saturday, May 17. Stop by and pick up a FireWise info card.
• Fire Safety Day will bring firefighters and mitigators to the ALCO parking lot along with Smokey the Bear on May 24.
• FireWise and the CSU Extension office will host a chainsaw workshop on Thursday, May 29, at the fairgrounds, from 10 a.m. until noon.
• WUI checkpoints could appear anywhere, maybe even in your neighborhood.
If you’d like more information on how to reduce the wildfire threat to your life and property, you can contact FireWise at 264-0430 or visit the southwestcoloradofires.org website. Pagosa Fire Protection District, 731-4191, can always offer advice and assistance. Our emergency management team at acemergency.org is good to check in on and register for the public warning program (reverse 911 calling).
FireWise is sponsoring a chipper rebate program again this year and additionally has teamed up with Archuleta County to have a slash depot. Residents can bring woody slash, less than 8 inches in diameter, to the Pagosa and Arboles transfer stations for chipping. No construction lumber or pine needles can be accepted for this free program. Contact FireWise for details.
It really is up to each and every one of us to take responsibility for the safety of ourselves, our family and our property, but there are many resources available to help.