Colorado forests, they are a-changin’

CU-Boulder scientist Tim Seastedt says climate change will affect wildfires, change forests

Spruce Gulch, where a fire has reshaped the landscape.

The heat of climate change has been felt with intensity here in Colorado. This summer, fires like the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs and Boulder’s Flagstaff Fire ravaged the state. According to Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) fellow Tim Seastedt, the burns of the past will likely be an active part of the future.

Though climate change messages can often come off as dire warnings, Seastedt says he sees the effects as changes that require adaptation, not panic.

The main concern in Colorado is the fact that our “dry down,” a move toward a more arid climate, is contributing directly to a rise in wildfires.

This could be attributed to a lack of precipitation, but Seastedt points to evaporation as the culprit.

“It’s not that we’re getting less precipitation; it’s the warming that simply causes more evaporation, which makes us a more semi-arid state,” he says.

Though Seastedt says that people have come to acknowledge this change, we haven’t yet begun to accept it and react appropriately.

“These extreme events need to be dealt with in a more proactive manner,” he says. “The wildfires we saw in the last couple of years aren’t going to go away.”

Seastedt says that some efforts to mitigate the effects of fires have begun to take form, but not on a large enough scale.

“They’re realizing that structures can function as trees and actually be part of the canopy fires,” he says. “Slowly, there will be the transition towards building with materials that don’t contribute to the canopy fires and can resist them better.”

The primary problem now is that those who already own homes built with flammable materials like wood and asphalt aren’t necessarily able or willing to convert their houses to ones made of stucco and tile.

The option of controlled burns would likely present the greatest contribution to controlling such damaging fires, but according to Seastedt, this option is not viable because of public pressure and money.

“There’s some irony here because the public is not ready to jump back into controlled burning, but the time we spend discussing it ups our vulnerability because the fuel load is quite large,” he says. “You have to have an incredible fire protection plan anytime you control burn, but ultimately, the costs are going to restrict our burns.”

This problem is noted by others as well, including Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

“There is a very clear fingerprint of climate change, but this is not simply a matter of it getting hotter and drier,” he says. “One of the major factors is actively suppressing fires.”

The focus, according the Seastedt, needs to be shifted towards working with the changing environment rather than against it, and becoming real experts not in preventing forest fires, but in minimizing their damaging effects through proactive, highly thought-out reaction plans.

“We need to have rapid response teams that will minimize the negative externalities and then the idea is to develop plans that are more compatible with the future,” he says. “That’s clearly what we needed to do and we need to get good at that.”

Clean-up plans employed after fires like the High Park Fire and the Fourmile Fire involve stabilizing soil, benefiting watershed and working to prevent future fires, according to Ed Self, executive director of Wildlands Restoration Volunteers.

“When we suppress wildfires, we end up with these dense tree stands that would have naturally burned,” Self says. “We simulate what nature would naturally do when we cut down trees in those areas.”

Seastedt says that the growth of wildfires mixed with fire suppression areas are dramatically changing the landscape of the state.

“The fire transformative event could have impacts within a decade. We’ll be having open meadow with patches of forest rather than forest with patches of open meadows,” he says.

The consequences aren’t all negative. On the positive side, Seastedt says that residents could get the chance to see and interact with a greater range of species of plant and animal life.

“From an ecologist standpoint, it actually could up the heterogeneity, the variability,” he says.

The changes are significant, and they are fast approaching, but research in places like Spruce Gulch by people like Seastedt offers a picture for the future.

“We have to adapt our lifestyles into living with the new systems rather than trying to return to the old one,” Seastedt says. “It’s not a doom and gloom story, it’s just a ‘here it is’ story, and we should look for opportunities amidst the issues.”

Respond: [email protected]



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here