Forest wildfires may be 'the new normal'

By: The Gazette editorial
June 18, 2013 Updated: June 18, 2013 at 11:15 pm
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No one wants to hear this, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't listen:

"I think this is the new normal."

Those are the unsettling words of Gregory Simon, a respected professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Denver. He was talking about last summer's Waldo Canyon fire and this summer's Black Forest fire, which killed four people and destroyed 849 homes combined.

Some are quick to blame global warming. It only seems logical that higher temperatures would lead to more fires, whether the heat results from human behavior, the end of an ice age, neither, or a little of each.

Others blame urbanization of forested mountain terrain, poor forestry management or years of fire suppression that nature finally overcame. Most catastrophes require multiple factors and we are presented with no simple panacea for stopping catastrophic wildfires. For whatever assortment of reasons, forests eventually burn.

We could all just move to a safer place - if we could find it. We have seen the devastation tornadoes cause throughout much of the country east of the Rockies. Other regions are frequently by floods, earthquakes and hurricanes that have dwarfed the death and devastation caused by our fires.

Our best course of action, after two consecutive infernos in metropolitan Colorado Springs, is ever-improving preparation.

We must no longer hope that wildfires are a distant "maybe someday" type of threat. We must acknowledge that they pose a constant threat and live accordingly. We must accept these fires as the new normal and hope that we are wrong.

No one in El Paso County is immune from this concern. More than 278,000 El Paso County residents live in red zones, meaning they are at some elevated risk posed by wildfires. When more than 500 homes burn in less than a week, the cost and responsibility fall to everyone in the region.

Nearly everyone in our community knows one or more victims of the fire. Most participate in insurance pools effected by the fires. We all pay for and live under government regulations that will change in the wake of these fires.

We cannot stop forests from burning. But we can, over time, reduce the vulnerability of our homes and businesses. We can improve building codes. Builders can choose to exceed minimum codes, building houses with internal sprinkler systems, better siding, better roofing and more defensible spaces between structures and trees.

Local politicians are, thankfully, talking about the need to review building and land use codes. Black Forest Fire Protection Chief Bob Harvey vows to improve construction practices in his jurisdiction.

"We will take a tough tact," Harvey said, as quoted in Sunday's Gazette. "We will hold a stringent code... I have to take this stance. It's the only ethical thing to do."

Amen. The men and women who respond to fires, trying to control and extinguish them, did an amazing job saving lives and properties during our community's last two major fires. We cannot thank them enough. We owe them and future generations a promise to learn from these fires and do all we can, as residents and business owners, to lead evermore fire-resistant lives as we enjoy life in the beauty of Colorado's rugged wilderness.

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