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GUEST COLUMN: Three Pikes Peak region catastrophic fires should be enough

By: Walt Hecox and Emily Padgett
March 11, 2018 Updated: March 11, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Visualize the forested flanks of Colorado Springs' western backdrop of Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak: the spectacular mountains, the green forests and the endless opportunity for recreation. The majestic landscapes of our city are a driver of the growth Colorado Springs is experiencing and a major reason why our region is one of the top communities in the country to call home.

Now imagine the same landscape: denuded of land cover by fire, leaving behind decades of standing dead timber, erosion and debilitated environment. Imagine the impact of catastrophic fire on our economy, on our watershed and on tourism.

The Pikes Peak region and the city of Colorado Springs have faced three catastrophic fires in recent memory: Hayman fire, 2002; Waldo Canyon fire, 2012; and Black Forest fire, 2013. Less well-known was a January 1950 fire exploding shortly after midnight with screeching winds pushing it up Cheyenne Mountain: consuming 50 square miles, a quarter the size of Colorado Springs today, torching 109 buildings on Camp Carson. It took 10 lives, including nine soldiers and one civilian.

Yet our vulnerable forests remain a lightning rod for devastating fires. Despite the overwhelming evidence that fire is a continued risk, too little is being done to mitigate the threat our region still faces as climatic and forest conditions quickly change.

Fires are only increasing in size, heat and severity. Evidence shows people have triggered five out of six wildfires in the U.S. during the past two decades, tripling the length of the wildfire season and making it start earlier in the East and last longer in the West. Mega fires also are growing rapidly: Even using a strict barometer of 100,000 acres plus as the threshold to qualify as a mega fire, before 1995 the U.S. averaged one mega fire per year. Between 2005 and 2014, the number jumped to 9.8 per year. And since the 1990s, the federal price tag for fighting such fires leaped from $300 million a year to $3 billion annually. In 2015 for the first-time wildfires affected more than 10 million acres of U.S. forests.

Fire scientists anticipate that within a few years, 12 to 15 million acres a year will burn, and U.S. Forest Service researchers warn that by midcentury that number could reach 20 million acres - an area the size of Maine. One in 14 trees is dead in Colorado forests and the number of gray-brown standing-dead trees has increased 30 percent since 2010 to 834 million trees, the State Forest Service annual survey reports.

The term "tragedy of the commons" might apply to Pikes Peak forest health: many benefit from a forested, serene Colorado Springs backdrop, yet none hold exclusive responsibility for its health and management. We lack the capacity needed to tackle broad regional public-private forest restoration due to two factors: the centurylong expectation that the U.S. Forest Service holds sole responsibility for forests, and the lack of responsible management across private forest landholders. We can no longer ignore the need our community has for conversation and action on this issue.

Imagine that massive fire revisits our region as a catastrophic fire on Cheyenne Mountain and the east slopes of Pikes Peak similar to the 1950 event. We know conditions could be ripe for near hurricane-force winds to push fire through our watersheds and down slopes into the wildland urban interface. If we look only at a strip of damage about 1 mile wide along the Wildland Urban Interface with Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, potential lost property values could be $1.67 billion from NORAD Road north to Lake Avenue. If a strip northwest from Lake Avenue to U.S. 24 were to burn, $1.24 billion could go up in smoke. And these values exclude loss of use, property contents, and regional loss of recreation and tourism visitation. A a recent Pikes Peak Forest Health Symposium organized by El Pomar Foundation's Pikes Peak Heritage Series was a first step in bringing together experts and interested regional residents to take stock of the threat. Symposium participants absorbed the grim messages of prior mega fires as well as dangerous conditions existing on a massive scale across the American West and right behind Colorado Springs in the Pike National Forest. They also heard about some promising public-private partnerships that, on a small to medium scale, are tackling forest restoration.

Across the nation and especially in forested regions, there are new programs, partners and fast evolving funding sources that could serve as examples in an effort to protect the flanks of Pikes Peak now and for future generations. Forest Service budgets cannot tackle such scale of management, but new approaches are enticing private capital and partnerships to share costs and benefits.

Where do we go from here with our forests? The last 15 years have taught our region much about how to coordinate the many agencies as first responders and eventual restoration managers. More is known about the changing behavior of megafires. Small regional efforts by public-private partnerships are using science to evaluate and treat the most vulnerable portions of forest regions. And yet the scale of what needs to be done is in the millions of acres across the American West while the funds available are treating areas measured in the hundreds to thousands of acres. An entire new approach towards wildfire is called for and time is not on the side of those who wait as we have seen with three successive catastrophic fire events over the last 15 years.

Colorado Springs' mountain backdrop could be a model for a well-managed forest, with the Pike Ranger District the focus of an innovative public-private partnership that would selectively thin and manage for restoration to historic conditions. The results would allow, indeed encourage, low-intensity fires (natural and human induced) to clear out understory without the danger of fire reaching the crowns of trees that kill large swatches and scorch the soil.

What if proactive public-private partnerships and access to private capital were brought to bear on our Pikes Peak backdrop? And what if a small percentage of potential damages from catastrophic fire were combined from stakeholders benefiting and transferred to current vulnerable forests and watersheds to initiate such an effort? Given just the property values in the El Paso County Assessor's records, losses of several billion dollars from a huge fire are possible; some $20 million at the front end could attract innovative tools, organizations, and public-private partnerships. Whether/who/how leadership will step forward is a gigantic question and challenge.

The Pikes Peak region has confronted and solved complex issues and can do so yet again if forest health is converted from being viewed as a static natural amenity to a dynamic, vital and scarce form of natural capital underpinning our mountain backdrop, economy and quality of life.

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Walt Hecox is a retired Colorado College economics professor and senior program adviser for El Pomar Foundation; Emily Padgett, a 2017 graduate of the University of Denver, is an El Pomar program associate; both are involved in the El Pomar Foundation's Pikes Peak Heritage Series. For more information, go to elpomar.org/heritageseries.

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