Beginning in the late 19th century, all-out fire suppression became the official policy of land management offices in Colorado and other Western states. Although many Indigenous communities were well acquainted with the role fire played in natural land cycles and ecosystem management, their expertise was cast aside in favor of the new government’s suppression goals.
By 1935, the official U.S. Forest Service policy demanded that all wildfires were to be suppressed by 10 a.m. the morning after they were first spotted.
What followed over the next 100-150 years disrupted the natural cycle of many Western forests. Wildfires sparked by lightning were quickly extinguished, and prescribed burns by Native American groups were outlawed. Dead brush accumulated on the forest floor as tree density skyrocketed. Trees struggled with limited resources, while invaders like dwarf mistletoe and pine beetles seized on the opportunity and made their mark on weakened ecosystems.
The current forest conditions in the West can be traced to policy decisions from the past. Meanwhile, Colorado and other mountainous states are already bearing the wounds of climate change, including scars from prolonged droughts, heat waves and shorter winters.
Nearly half of Colorado residents live in wildfire-prone areas known as the wildland-urban interface, where human development mixes with flammable, natural terrain.
Local fire districts in Colorado are using novel ways to educate the public on the current threats of wildfire — mainly that the danger of mega-fires cannot simply be managed away — and are warning that Coloradans need to learn to coexist with fire. These photos from Summit County, Vail, Evergreen and more, show that work in progress. While Colorado has had a few relatively quiet wildfire years, including 2023, wildfire experts and climate scientists say the trend won’t last.
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