Will Colorado Communities Adapt to Climate-Driven Wildfire?

The Rudstrom's house survived the 2016 Cold Springs Fire, but sustained a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage to the exterior.

“It never crossed my mind,” says Nederland resident Rick Rudstrom when asked if he had ever considered the possibility of his home burning in a wildfire.

But all that changed on July 9, 2016, when the Cold Springs Fire ignited and spread from a campfire left burning in the nearby forest on that hot, dry, windy day.

Rudstrom was in downtown Nederland when he saw a huge plume of smoke roiling up from the woods northeast of town. Immediately, he called his wife, Pat, at home and told her to prepare to get out. He drove the four miles home and, as they gathered up some clothes and important documents, they got the reverse 911 call to evacuate. By the time they hurried out the front door, it was already “snowing” ash and embers.

Not long after they made it safely to the shelter at Nederland High School, Rudstrom says the fire emerged from the forest behind their property, “shifted, and came roaring through … [and] just engulfed our house.”

“It broke all the windows,” he says. “The stucco, that got scorched. But all the eaves and the wood around the windows, that all ignited. So it was actually on fire.”

The gutters melted. Flames licked around the propane tank, but somehow didn’t consume it. “If it had blown, the whole house would’ve gone,” he says.

Thanks to the same high winds that spread it in the first place, the fire burned through the area quickly, leaving the Rudstroms’ house standing, albeit with a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage to the exterior.

Rudstrom says the local fire chief told him that he was “one lucky son of a bitch.” Indeed, the closest neighbor’s house across the street burned to the ground, as did a nearby cabin. By the time firefighters contained the 528-acre blaze on July 14, eight homes were lost.

Luck certainly played a role in sparing the Rudstroms’ home. But other factors may also have been involved, such as the house’s fire-resistant stucco, and the mitigation the couple had done — Rick cutting down dead trees and Pat “religiously” raking out fallen pine needles from around the house every spring.

In fact, a new study out of the University of Colorado Boulder stresses how important it is for homeowners to take such measures to adapt to wildfires, which, thanks to a changing climate, are burning earlier, more often and bigger than ever before.

Seared science

Wildfire is a natural and vital component of forest ecosystems and crucial for the various species of mammals, birds and other wildlife that have adapted to these landscapes. However, more and more humans moving into forest-edge communities have predictably resulted in a large number of homes destroyed and lives lost.

What’s more, over the last four decades, the Western U.S. has experienced a “dramatic increase” in wildfires “tightly correlated” to climate change, according to Tania Schoennagel with the Department of Geography and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU.

The study, “Adapt to more wildfire in western North American forests as climate changes,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, blames climate-driven factors such as “rising temperatures, increased drought, longer fire seasons, and earlier snowmelt” for the uptick in fires.

Schoennagel points out rising global temperatures and how, this year, Colorado experienced its warmest March on record since 1895. Warmer temperatures have led to snow melting one to four weeks earlier than past decades, which creates the dry conditions ripe for wildfire.

“In the 1970s we had maybe 20 large fires per year. And now we’re experiencing well over 100 large fires per year in the West,” Schoennagel says. The frequency of large fires has increased by 1,000 percent in the Northwest, 889 percent in the Northern Rockies, 462 percent in the Southwest, and 274 percent in Colorado and the Southern Rockies.

“The fire season is about three months longer now than it was in the ’70s,” Schoennagel says, referring to a fire that burned in February just outside of Boulder as a “canary in the coal mine.”

Fuel’s paradise

Site of the West Magnolia Fuels Treatment Project outside Nederland. Josh Schlossberg

Schoennagel says that even though fires on private lands account for the vast majority of wildfire-related costs, “much of the responsibility and financial burden for community protection from wildfire falls on public land-management agencies.”

Fire suppression is the U.S. Forest Service’s primary tool for dealing with wildfire, with $1.6 billion directed to the cause in 2016.

The agency is also fond of “hazardous fuel reduction,” which consists of cutting trees and understory growth in National Forests, and is sometimes coupled with prescribed fires. The CU study notes that seven million acres of federal lands have been targeted for fuel reduction treatments from 2001-2015, with funding from 2006-2015 alone totaling $3.2 billion.

Such projects are “intended to change fire behavior — reducing/lessening the impact of fire on the landscape and giving firefighters an advantage in managing unplanned fires,” according to K. “Reid” Armstrong, regional fire communications specialist for the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service

Sometimes the byproducts of fuel reduction logging are sold as forest products, which, depending on the size and quality of trees cut, can be utilized for anything from lumber to biomass energy. Often times, the leftover wood is simply burned on-site.

One such project is the half-completed Lump Gulch Fuel Treatment Project — 1,642 acres in the Boulder Ranger District of the Roosevelt National Forest that includes 1,277 acres of clear-cuts up to 40 acres in size.

Armstrong believes that projects such as Lump Gulch are valuable because “opening up space between treetops and reducing fine fuels on the forest floor helps change fire behavior.” For instance, she says that a “crowning” fire (one that burns from treetop to treetop) can be brought down to the ground in thinned areas, which can make it easier for firefighters to get it under control.

Furthermore, Armstrong says that fuel breaks along the “Wildland-Urban Interface,” where the forest meets communities, can help “prevent fire from moving from public land onto private lands and allows firefighters to safely defend homes.” Indeed, Armstrong credits a recent fuel reduction project for helping to limit the spread of last year’s Cold Springs Fire.

The Forest Service just announced its decision to move forward with the Forsythe II Project, a fuel reduction project over 2,460 acres of the Roosevelt National Forest between Nederland and Gross Reservoir. The project, proposed years ago but halted in 2014 due to public concerns, is back on the table again after taking into account some stakeholder feedback and dropping more than a thousand acres of treatments.

However, the CU study points out that fuel reduction might not be the most effective approach when dealing with wildfire. One of its main conclusions is that, rather than fuels, wildfire is “influenced primarily by patterns of drought and warming.”

Josh Schlossberg

The Forest Service admits that fuel reduction isn’t always the best tool in the toolbox. “Under the extreme fire conditions (driven by dry fuels, topography, high wind, temperatures), some fuels treatments may not be effective,” Armstrong says.

Also worth considering is the fact that, on average during any given year, only about 1 percent of Forest Service fuel reduction projects experience wildfire, with the potential benefits lasting just 10 to 20 years before the trees grow back. This reality on the ground has led Schoennagel and study authors to determine that, “most treatments have little influence on wildfire.”

The study acknowledges that low-elevation, dry forests that have historically experienced frequent fire and, as the result of fire suppression, have a build-up of fuels — such as those on the outskirts of Boulder — may benefit from some “midstory and understory” thinning and prescribed fire.

Taking a look at the tightly-packed “doghair thickets” of lodgepole pine, spruce and fir found at high elevations such as Nederland, one might assume these forests, too, are overgrown. However, Schoennagel says the crowding is simply a matter of cooler, wetter environments that can support more trees, and not a “consequence of poor management.”

Since these sub-alpine forests have a 100 to 300 year fire return interval, the last several decades of fire suppression likely haven’t impacted their natural state very much.

Schoennagel thinks that the Lump Gulch Project differs from other public land fuel reduction projects in its close proximity to communities. Yet, overall, she says that, “managing the forests to protect the communities… I just don’t think that longterm that’s going to be the way to go.”

So then what are forest-edge communities supposed to do besides throw up their hands and pray for rain?

Home is where the heat is

Every year, the influenza virus infects millions of people in the U.S. If you don’t want to catch the illness yourself, there are a couple ways to protect yourself.

One option is offing everyone who comes down with the sniffles. But a more effective — not to mention humane and legal — approach would be to build up your own immunity through proper diet, exercise and rest, and if you’re really worried, get a flu shot.

Now extend this analogy to wildfire. Instead of cutting millions of trees in backcountry forests in hopes of protecting communities, why not focus on treating the area directly around homes?

Between 1990 and 2010, nearly two million homes were built in the Wildland-Urban Interface in the western U.S., with almost 900,000 homes — valued at $237 billion total — at high risk of wildfire damage. According to the study, California, Colorado and Washington have experienced the lion’s share of these fires.

“Communities really need to become more adapted to wildfire,” Schoennagel says. And the most important action homeowners can take is to mitigate their properties, similar to the way the Rudstroms have done.

A 2014 study in the International Journal of Wildland Fire concluded that the best way to protect a home against wildfire is to mitigate a 60-foot area around its perimeter, which can involve mowing, tree trimming and common sense construction choices, such as replacing a shake roof with a metal one. Jack Cohen, scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Sciences Laboratory, found these measures alone can ensure that a home survives 95 percent of fires. 

Luckily for Boulder County residents, an organization exists to help them do just that.

Wildfire Partners — funded by Boulder County, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) —  offers “technical assistance and significant financial support to homeowners who are accepted into the program,” according to Program Coordinator Jim Webster.

Courtesy of Wildfire Partners

While most expenses fall on homeowners, those who do the required mitigation not only greatly increase their chances of their home surviving a fire, but they receive a certificate that makes it easier for them to get insurance and sell their house.

“Many homeowners are aware of wildfire risk,” Webster says. “However, on-going action, rather than just awareness, is needed.”

For instance, Webster says many homeowners think they have properly mitigated their homes, but they’ve often “failed to address important vulnerabilities” that Wildfire Partners can help them detect.

After three-and-a-half years of operation, Wildfire Partners currently has 1,300 participants in Boulder County, with an eventual target of 6,000 homes.

Up for adaptation

“Predictions are that we should expect about 2 to 4 degrees warming by mid-century,” Schoennagel says. “You can do the math on that. It’s expected that wildfires are going to increase ever more.

“Costs are going to be high, risks are going to be high,” she says. “It’s going to be something we’ve never witnessed.”

Adapative resilience to wildfire is the key, the study concludes, which involves “recognizing the limited impact of past fuels management, acknowledging the important role of wildfire in maintaining many ecosystems and ecosystem services, and embracing new strategies to help human communities live with fire.”

“The climate is changing. Our fire risk and fire regimes are changing and so are ecosystems, and people need to adapt in order to be resilient to those changes,” Schoennagel says. “Adapting means adjusting to them and reorganizing to reduce future vulnerabilities.”

Home mitigation is crucial, Schoennagel says. But so are measures such as “widening roads, putting in escape routes, adequate water supplies, clustering development and creating fire breaks.”

The study lists additional actions, including changing building codes to make homes more fire-resistant, providing financial incentives for homeowners to do mitigation, and — perhaps most controversial — “discouraging new development on fire-prone lands.”

It all comes down to learning from past mistakes and using the latest science to help shape a new “fire culture.”

It comes back

The Rudstroms’ house sits on the crest of a hill surrounded by acres of dead and dying lodgepole pine, the black trunks stark against a berry-blue sky. Across the road, on the other side of the canyon, green, thickly forested hills rise, untouched by the fire.

“What we always wanted was a bigger view and we didn’t have it, we had all these trees,” Rick says, taking a break from replanting his front yard with aspen seedlings. “We got a bigger view the hard way.”

A loud truck rumbles by on the road. Rick’s eyes track Zoe, his four-month old retriever-terrier rescue, as she sprints across the yard in pursuit. As soon as she sets foot on the pavement, Rick shouts out her name and, after some dawdling, she comes loping back.

“In April there was nothing. Nothing,” he says, gesturing around him with a hand. He admits to some periods of depression over the past year, what with damages to the house — almost all of which were covered by insurance — and the charred landscape surrounding him. But instead of despairing, he got right to work planting trees.

“Now we probably have two hundred seedlings coming up, they’re coming up everywhere,” he says. Indeed, a slew of baby trees dot the yard — many of them protected from hungry deer by plastic sleeves — among clumps of bright green grass.

“I think it’ll be three years when some of these small aspens get some growth and some of these pines get going,” he says, nodding. “I think it’ll be OK. It’ll come back.”

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