Imagine a forest with single trees scattered about. Once in a while, a cluster of Ponderosa pines or Douglas firs break up large voids between the timber, providing shade and habitat for various wildlife.
In this forest, few fallen trees and other low-lying surface shrubs are found. The tall stands have large, healthy canopies. Limbs begin quite high, leaving room to walk. But most importantly, the forest floor welcomes surface fires that don't burn extremely hot and mitigate the landscape, making large dangerous wildfires a scarcity.
That's the vision that foresters, researchers, ecologists and government officials see when they study forest history and dream of a time when people living near wild lands in the western United States don't have to worry about monster blazes claiming lives and destroying homes.
Forests more than 120 years ago in Colorado and other western states looked like this, said Peter Brown the director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research based in Fort Collins. Brown and Mike Battaglia, a forester for the Rocky Mountain Research Station, said ranching prior to 1900 and a philosophy that came about around 1910 to suppress wildfire at all costs has led to dangerously unhealthy forests and the need to return wild lands to their former state.
"It's a paradigm shift of management, that's for sure," said Battaglia, noting that research by the U.S. Forest Service and Brown's organization on trees scarred by wildfire have begun to change approaches to fire management in the last two decades.
According to Brown, studies of rings in living trees, stumps and fallen timber scarred by wildfire reveal a pattern pre-1880 of regularly occurring surface fires in the Pike National Forest. Brown's organization has worked along the Rampart Range in Teller County and in the Manitou Experimental Forest near the Teller and Douglas County line.
The researcher said evidence documents fire history dating back more than 700 years. Brown said there were frequent fires up to just before the 20th century. He said livestock grazing and the lumber industry appear to have played roles in breaking up the fuels and helping end the pattern. But the biggest factor that led to about 120 years of "almost no wildfire" came in 1910, he said. A large blaze hit the Pacific Northwest that year, blackened the skies with smoke as far away as Denver and prompted "the Forest Service to become a fire-fighting entity."
According to Battaglia, the Forest Service's recent shift in forest management began to take shape after the Buffalo Creek fire burned more than 11,000 acres in Jefferson County in 1996. Officials' eyes opened even wider after more than 130,000 acres were scorched from Lake George to Douglas County during the Hayman fire of 2002.
During those wildfires and more large events, including the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and last year's Black Forest blaze, flames quickly spread from the forest floor to the crowns of trees. High winds led to rapid movement and untamable conditions. The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires in the Pikes Peak region burned more than 32,000 acres, killed four people and destroyed 835 homes collectively.
"A fire will hit (the forests) regardless," Battaglia said. "The goal is to create a landscape that is resilient to those fires and still maintain the canopy."
Forest Service crews and volunteers from organizations such as the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute have been busy in the Pikes Peak region working toward that goal.
Battaglia said Monday that work in the Catamount area on the north slope of Pikes Peak, along Colorado 67 in northern Teller County, in the Ryan Quinlan zone north of Divide and in areas near Eleven-Mile Canyon in Park County is ongoing to return the Pike National Forest to its former "mosaic" of trees and open areas.
According to U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Barb Timock, the Forest Service spent more than $8 million since the beginning of 2011 in fuel reduction and forest restoration projects in the Pikes Peak region, South Park County and the South Platte River watershed.
"It's a lot cheaper to treat the forest than to do restoration," she said. "My hope is that we could get the forest back to a condition where we could allow fires to burn naturally. I don't know if that's ever going to happen, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
During the recent 2014 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference in Glenwood Springs, multiple speakers echoed Battaglia's statement about cost. Fighting wildfires can cost into tens-of-thousands of dollars per acre whereas thinning an acre can run as little as $600, said Noah Koerper a speaker at the conference and representative of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's office.
Several people in the wildfire management community are pushing to make prescribed burns a large aspect of the newly found approach to forest restoration. Among them are Carol Ekarius and Jon Bruno of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. CUSP is heavily involved in the restoration and mitigation work in Teller, Douglas and Park counties.
Bruno, Ekarius and Battaglia said controlled burns could do a lot to mimic pre-1900 forest conditions and 19th Century fire activity where populated areas butt up against forest and grassland. The problem, however, comes when people living in those areas express fears of having fires "in their backyard," Battaglia said.
"The social climate for fire is pretty low," he said.
The forester added that smoke issues in the Wildland Urban Interface and the threat of controlled burns losing control and burning homes has stalled many efforts to use those methods as a means of mitigation.
"Fire is seen as a very negative thing," Battaglia said. "But if you use it in the right places, it can do a lot of good."