Why wildfires in Colorado are a growing threat and what our forests have to do with it

Forest Service suppression costs top $2B in 2017
Posted at 10:08 PM, Sep 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-21 00:26:59-04

BOULDER, Colo. -- Firefighters will tell you the next big fire is not a matter of "if," it's a matter of "when." Colorado has seen its fair share of wildfires in 2017 but what's especially troubling is how difficult it's becoming to fight these fires and just how common they are.

"So fires are starting to grow larger. They’re burning hotter than usual. They’re basically just harder to contain, harder to suppress," said Seth McKinney, a Fire Operations Specialist with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.

So far this year, Boulder County has completed nearly 300 acres of prescribed burn and firefighters would like to do another 300 before the end of the year. 

More people are making their home in the mountains, in vulnerable areas. On top of that, Colorado forests have a lot of standing dead and fallen trees. Those trees are the perfect fuel source for a wildfire and a firefighter's worst nightmare.

“We’re coming out of essentially 100 years of suppressing fires which the forest keeps on growing no matter what. So, as the trees and forest grow, and the fire is typically the way to kind of clean that up, the fire hasn’t been there to do that job for us," explains McKinney.

A journalist, and a University of Colorado professor, is highlighting those concerns. Michael Kodas with the CU's Center for Environmental Journalism wrote about it in his book titled, “Megafire: The Race To Extinguish A Deadly Epidemic Of Flame.”

He said the first thing we need to do is start thinking about fire differently.

“We probably need to think more about living with those fires. Rather than spending immense amounts of money fighting fires that actually do not threaten human infrastructure or homes," said Kodas.

He points out the fact that many forests now have 10 times more trees than they did a century ago."

"That’s a problem in some forests here in Colorado that’s led to more explosive fires," said Kodas.

The U.S. Forest Service recently announced that it had spent a record $2 billion on fighting wildfires. Fire suppression now exceeds 55 percent of the Forest Service budget.