Forum: Forests, landscapes and changing realities

The growth and behavior of the High Park Fire, which started northwest of Bellvue in June 2012 and raged for three weeks, still has some experts scratching their heads.

“The fire went from Buckhorn Canyon through Rist Canyon in 24 hours, said Boyd Lebeda, District Forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “That’s astounding.”

Lebeda was one of three panelists participating in The High Park Fire: A Community Responds hosted by the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. The Feb. 12 panel discussion was the second of six public forums, each focusing on a different aspect of the fire. Joining Lebeda were Laurie Huckaby, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and Tony Cheng with the Colorado Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.

Cheng echoed that the High Park Fire grew at a phenomenal rate. Moreover, the fire burned hot even at high elevations, and at the lower elevations, there were stand-replacing fires where there should have been surface fires. A stand-replacement fire is a high-intensity fire that kills all or most of the living upper canopy.

“The fire burned with all different types of intensity all along the elevational gradient,” Huckaby said

By the time the High Park Fire was contained by multiple local, state, and federal agencies, one person had been killed, 259 homes were destroyed and over 87,000 acres had burned.

“The high intensity of the fire resulted in the large number of homes lost,” said Cheng. Although the number of fires is decreasing across the nation, Cheng said the average fire size is increasing. Moreover, since the year 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion each year in firefighting costs. “And those costs only relate to firefighting,” he said, “not to other areas, like recovery.”

The panelists also discussed the effectiveness of fuels management in extreme burning conditions. “With fire excluded in that area for a long time,” Lebeda said, “the forest was over-stocked with ladder fuels.”

While Lebeda admitted that fuels management may be marginally successful at stopping, slowing or preventing fires, he said management helps to reduce both fire intensity and burn severity. The soil suffers less damage. Around homes, Lebeda said, “Do the best defensible space you can do and then maintain it.”

“We need to focus on what we can control,” said Cheng. “We need to reduce woody fuels.”

Cheng said about three-quarters of homes are lost due to either embers or a surface fire. “We’re still not creating conditions where homes won’t burn.”

Finally, the panelists looked toward the future.

“The land we’re looking at [the fire burn area] was all burned before at some time,” said Lebeda. “The soil will recover, and the vegetation will recover in time.”

Huckaby said that trees are great recorders of history, including fires. “They are fantastic story-tellers,” she said, adding that Larimer County still has some very old trees. “Several are over 700 years old, and one Douglas Fir is over 800 years old.”

The next forum – When Wildland Fire Hits Home – will be held at the museum beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 12. Each forum is open to the public, free of charge, although registration is required (go to fcmod.org). The forums will also be broadcast on Fort Collins City Cable 14.

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