Up close: Mountain communities re-learn how to live with wildfires

· Dec. 28, 2023, 4:00 am
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKCOLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
A US Forest Service crew member moves away from a burning pile, after setting it ablaze in Frisco, on April 19, 2023. The pile burning served to limit potential fire fuel near the St. Anthony Summit Hospital.

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.


COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
At left, Kat Gray, US Forest Service fuels planner, stands in front of a newly lit pile with her ignition device, in Frisco, on April 19, 2023. The pile burning served to limit potential fire fuel near the St. Anthony Summit Hospital. At right, crew leader Dusty Calfee keeps a watchful eye on a pile burn in Frisco. Calfee keeps close tabs on changes in the weather during the burn, as atmospheric conditions affect smoke accumulation in the area.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
A structure fire grows into a wildland fire in Boulder County, on December 19, 2022. The fire grew to nearly 20 acres and demonstrated how quickly a structure fire can jump to wildland fuels on windy days.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
Jess Moore, the Evergreen Fire Wildland Project Coordinator, surveys an area covered in dry needles as part of a defensible space inspection in Evergreen, CO on March 14, 2023. Removing dry debris from the forest floor is an easy way for home owners to reduce fire fuels near their homes.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
James Estle, Fuels Crew Supervisor for Evergreen Fire Rescue, surveys the work done to cut and pile overcrowded trees in a forest in Evergreen, on June 14, 2023. Estle has worked along the front range for over a decade, and works as an instructor at Colorado Firecamp, a program that aims to train and improve the skills of those who work in wildland fire mitigation and fighting.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
At left, Jess Moore, the Evergreen Fire Wildland Project Coordinator, examines trees that have grown too close to a structure, as part of a defensible space inspection in Evergreen, on March 14, 2023. Trees that should be removed to reduce ignition points near structures will be marked with spray paint. At right, a burn pile sits just beyond the private property line of Lisa and Randy Lewis, homeowners in Silverthorne, on July 28, 2023. The neighborhood of Ruby Ranch worked with the US Forest Service and the Summit County Wildfire Council to gain approvals for a unique fuels reduction project in a federally-designated wilderness area.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
Hannah Ohlson, left, a Wildland Specialist for Summit County Fire, meets with a contractor for a defensible space inspection in Silverthorne, on April 18, 2023. All new construction in Summit County must be inspected for proper defensible space.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
Paul Cada, Wildland Program Manager at Vail Fire, uses a whiteboard to keep tabs on running projects and to remind himself of themes to carry into educational opportunities with citizens of the affluent vacation community on July 31, 2023. One of Vail’s biggest challenges concerns how to communicate wildfire risk and potential evacuation orders with a population that is made up of remote property owners and a transient workforce.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
A fallen tree displays markings of beetle infestation in Eagles Nest Wilderness on June 22, 2023. Mountain pine beetles cause swaths of trees to die, leaving dry fuel on the forest floor for a potential wildfire to exploit.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
A US Forest Service crew constructs a fire line during a pile burn in Frisco, on April 19, 2023. Most pile burning happens in winter, when accumulated snow and low temperatures help to limit the chances of the blaze escaping to other areas.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik
Doug Lesch, of Summit County Fire, leans on his pulaski during a wildfire training exercise in Summit County, on June 22, 2023. Lesch has opted for a tattoo wedding band in order to avoid potentially having a conventional wedding band snag on equipment while working in the field.
COLORADO-WILDFIRE-MITIGATION-JACK-KOVALIKJack Kovalik/For CPR News
Members of multiple fire organizations in Summit County prepare for a broadcast burn at a shooting range near Dillon, on June 22, 2023. Numerous blazes have ignited on the land behind a public shooting range, as fired rounds spark dry brush. Human activity is responsible for most wildfire ignitions in the Western US.

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