Population boom in West putting humans closer to devastating wildfires

DENVER – Nearly half the population of the West lives in an area with potential for wildfire danger. And both the risk of fire and the population in harm’s way are rising in this fast-growing part of the nation.

Eighty-four percent of the risk area has not yet been developed.

“Which means the problem is going to get much worse,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonprofit Headwaters Economic Group, a Montana research organization studying wildfire risk and community development.

Since 2000, more than 1 million people in Colorado, 3 million in Arizona and 21 million in California have been threatened by wildfires that came within 10 or fewer miles of their towns, according to data from Headwaters.

The organization is one of several tracking the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, an area where man-made structures exist near or within flammable vegetation.

The nation watched in horror in November as the Camp Fire east of Chico became the deadliest in California history, with more than 80 lives lost and others still missing when the fire was finally contained after burning nearly a month. About 19,000 buildings were destroyed.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, President Donald Trump tweeted about the Camp Fire and several others burning in California: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Firefighters work to keep the Woolsey fire from reaching this house near Calabasas, Calif., in November. The house was one of few in the neighborhood that did not burn. (Photo courtesy Steve Purcell)

Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said firefighters often suppress natural forest fires to protect homes and people, but over time, that has disrupted the natural fire ecosystem, causing thicker vegetation and a build-up of fuels in forest areas.

It is important to invest in the health of the forest by removing overcrowded fuels, he said. But that can be difficult to do.

“We can’t let fires burn with overcrowded forests where people live,” Lester said. “It’s just too dangerous.”

In northern Arizona, a multi-government agency called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is thinning ponderosa forests from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico line in hopes of preventing devastating fires.

4FRI, which encompasses four national forests in that area, got its start in 2009 with federal funding, after years of historically large and devastating wildfires in northern Arizona.

Dick Fleishman helps manage tree-thinning operations for 4FRI. He points to one side of a fence where privately-owned land hasn’t been thinned. On the other, is a 4FRI area of large grassy expanses and distinct clumps of older trees.

– Video by Jordan Dafnis/Cronkite News

“Here with the grassy openings, the fire would get on the ground and burn as a surface fire,” he said.

That’s an important distinction: Surface fires burn low and slow, while a fire in tree branches burns hot and fast – and is highly destructive.

Fleishman said the forests closest to where people live are the highest priority for restoration. Because not only would a wildfire burn trees, it also burns soil – which makes conditions ripe for catastrophic floods in the rainy seasons.

Near Flagstaff, homes are going up right next to national forest land. The space is ideal for nature-lovers, but nature needs to be managed. Especially when fire is as critical to the land as water and air, said Brienne Petit, 4FRI spokeswoman.

“We want more fire that behaves the way it actually should,” Petit said. “These forests need fire to survive.”

Arizona’s biggest wildfires, Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 and Wallow in 2011, burned for weeks and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Part of that damage was to the water supply because the fires burned in the watershed.

Voters in Flagstaff passed a $10 million bond five years ago to help. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to treat the amount of forest covering the city’s watershed.

Arizona Game & Fish Department coordinator Steve Rosenstock said that ballot initiative is just one way to move the forest restoration forward.

“That is a very, very unique thing, and in these times when budgets are tight having that other sort of funding could make the difference between a project happening or not,” Rosenstock said.

Brent Poindexter is a volunteer firefighter in Colorado who moved into a WUI area near the New Mexico state line. He said he knew the risk of living among thick pines when he moved into Forbes Park neighborhood in Costilla County about two years ago, but the tranquility of the place moved him to settle there anyway.

“It was by choice, 100 percent, and it was beautiful here,” he said. “But you know that going in, that’s a risk you take.”

Poindexter said he knew it was probably just a matter of time before fire erupted in his neighborhood. He was right.

In July, the Spring Creek Fire, the third largest in Colorado history, charred more than 100,000 acres of land and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, including Poindexter’s. His three-level log house was reduced to ash and rubble.

“If there wasn’t these houses here, we would obviously just let it burn, and let Mother Nature do its thing,” said Poindexter, who volunteered to fight the blaze.

If more fires could burn naturally, there would be some benefits to the forests, experts say.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the UCLA. He also directs the Center for Climate Science.

Fires can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter. They also can help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, such as the bark beetle that has decimated millions of acres of forest in the West over the past decade.

And the fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes, and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire,” Hall said.

But Western wildfires have been getting more dangerous and deadly. And the influx of population into the WUI, combined with the effects of climate change, mean those trends are likely to continue.

“Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades,” Hall said. “Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.”

Climate change also increases the swings between very wet and dry years, putting more vegetation at fire risk, he said.

“We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge certainly in the climate record, and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented,” Hall said. “We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity.”

Reporters Lori Jane Gliha of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Casey Kuhn of KJZZ in Phoenix and David Nazar of PBS SoCal in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.