July 21, 2008

Forests in Colorado Also Facing Scourge From Fires

By Hazlehurst, John

While insects and disease alter ecosystems over many years, severe wildfires can destroy entire forests in a few days.

The 2002 Hayman fire burned 138,000 acres in less than 10 days -- and the conditions that produced that fire are present in 36 percent of the local forest.

"The forested areas surrounding Woodland Park have been identified as a unique and serious fire hazard to the residents of Teller County," according to the The Catamount Landscape Assessment.

Driven by periodic drought and elevated temperatures, the annual number of wildfires in Colorado has increased from an average of 457 fires per year during the 1960s to 2,575 during the 2000s.

The average number of acres burned annually also has increased from 8,170 acres per year during the 1960s to 88,737 acres during the 2000s.

As populations increase within and along the periphery of the forest, fires increase as well. The droughts of the last decade have created forests with low moisture content which, in transient conditions of high temperature/wind velocity, are vulnerable to severe wildfires.

Such stressed forests are correspondingly more vulnerable to insects and disease.

Unless the state's forests benefit from a changed microclimate, characterized by wetter, cooler summers and periods of extreme winter cold, they will remain vulnerable to fire, disease and insect attack.

And Summit County can expect a major conflagration in the near future.

"For lodgepole forests, that's the way it works," said Brent Botts, district ranger for the Forest Service. "Fire is the way they regenerate -- the seeds aren't released from the cones unless the trees burn -- and burn they will. Even if they're next to a ski area."

Credit: John Hazlehurst

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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