GRAND COUNTY, Colo. — Their stories are as harrowing as they are heartbreaking.
“I grabbed the dog and ran as fast as I could,” said Amanda O’Mara, who lost her home in the East Troublesome Fire in October.
The East Troublesome Fire burned 193,812 acres in Grand and Larimer counties after it started on Oct. 14 northeast of Kremmling. As of Monday, it is 100% contained.
“It’s been home for 46 years,” said Diane Williamson, who also lost her home. “The kids were born and raised here.”
Forces of nature are the subject of some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Unfortunately, those fictional tales are all too real this year in Colorado.
“We had the three biggest fires in Colorado’s history this summer,” said Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service. “Our forests are not in particularly good shape.”
The East Troublesome Fire is the second-largest fire in Colorado history. This year's other major fires include the Cameron Peak Fire, which burned 208,913 acres, and Pine Gulch Fire, which burned 139,007 acres.
Lester says a lack of forest management in Colorado is leading to extremes.
“It’s not a surprise that it happened; it’s just a surprise when it happened,” Lester said.
All three of those fires, the East Troublesome Fire in Grand and Larimer counties, the Cameron Peak Fire in Larimer County and the Pine Gulch Fire in Mesa and Garfield counties, happened in late summer and early fall, outside Colorado’s normal fire season.
So, why the extremes? Lester says it’s complicated, but attributes massive wildfires to three primary issues.
First, droughts are more prevalent leading to a longer wildfire season and more insect infestations and dead timber.
“All of our key insects, like mountain pine beetle, for example, they’re kept in check by really cold temperatures early in the season,” Lester said. “We haven’t seen much of that in the last 20 years or so.”
Second, there’s greater suppression of fires because more and more homes are popping up in the Wildland Urban Interface.
“Once you start suppressing fire, you start changing fuel loads,” Lester said. “Half of Colorado’s population, roughly three million people, live in the Wildland Urban Interface right now.”
And third, there's a lack of forest products industry in Colorado, like loggers and furniture makers, who could clear out much of the fuel load.
“Mechanical thinning, logging, that type of thing,” Lester said.
In 25 years, Dan Ruffin, a home builder in the Colorado Rockies, built more than 35 log cabins.
“When I was building log houses, all my logs that I got were standing dead timber,” Ruffin said.
He’s witnessed, firsthand, the impact of not clearing out dead timber. And this year, he nearly became a victim.
“This is how close the fire came to our place,” Ruffin said as he pointed out a patch of charred grass up against the garage. “It came right to the cement foundation. Why it didn’t catch the house or the garage on fire, I don’t know.”
Ruffin says there’s no doubt the lack of a timber industry is leading to overgrowth and devastation.
“I know there were a lot of timber sales that were halted by the environmentalists,” Ruffin said. “They went out and put spikes in the trees and stuff. And then, when the beetle came through, it killed all those trees that they were trying to save.”
From an environmental perspective, many groups have now relaxed their opposition to forest-thinning projects.
Denver7 reached out to several of those organizations for this story and did not hear back.
But a Sacramento Bee investigation revealed that while environmental groups once routinely used the courts to block or delay forest-thinning projects, many have now started working with the logging industry.
The president of the California forestry association recently wrote, “The vast majority of the mainstream environmental community is on board. We’ve been working hard together … and have good partnerships.”
Many environmental groups now concede it’s not just climate change causing catastrophic wildfires, but poor forest management in states like Oregon, California and Colorado.
“I don’t know if this could have been prevented because there are fires every year in Colorado, but this is decades of not being touched and managed,” said Colorado native Amy Fischer.
Fischer said she believes the state must fund and support businesses that reclaim, recover and repurpose beetle kill and other dead timber.
“Why don’t they let builders come in and clear out the old and repurpose it and use it to build new homes?” said Fischer, who lives in Park County.
She just toured several homes where beetle kill timber was used in construction.
“It’s gorgeous when it is used,” Fischer said. “The stairs are made out of it, the trim around the doors. It’s gorgeous.”
Her fear is what will happen if the state does not act.
“It’s going to keep happening,” she said. “There’s places that haven’t burned yet, and it’s just a matter of time.”
State foresters say those beetle kill trees are not more flammable, but because of the volume, they are dangerous.
“It’s a lot of dead fuel. It’s a lot of dry fuel,” Lester said. “Once it ignites, it’s much harder to predict its behavior. It’s much harder to predict where it’s going to go.”
That was the trouble with the East Troublesome Fire.
When it exploded overnight on Oct. 21 to Oct. 22 from 20,000 acres to 110,000 acres, no one, not even those with the most knowledge of wildfires, knew where it would go or what kind of destruction it was capable of.
“Instead of a low to moderate intensity fire, they get to be catastrophic fires,” Lester said.
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