LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, who is the county’s fire warden, says Coloradans need to reevaluate the way we manage forests and prepare them for the threat of fires. Smith said, recently, the state has focused primarily on fire suppression, rather than also prioritizing mitigation efforts.
Fires thrive, in general, on oxygen, heat and fuel. While it may be difficult to manage the weather and oxygen levels in the Rocky Mountains, Smith said humans can manage the abundance of fuels.
For years now Smith, and other Colorado fire experts, have feared the potential for a devastating fire in the Larimer County mountains. Smith said the Cameron Peak Fire quickly became the blaze they had concerns for years ago.
“This is the fire we knew was coming,” Smith told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “We knew that fuel load at some time was going to get lit under the right conditions.”
Smith said the fire, which ballooned from 35,000 acres to more than 100,000 in a matter of three days, quickly grew due to a mixtures of strong winds and a significant amount of fuel. Most of the fuel for the fire came with beetle-kill trees.
“You combined some above-average temperatures and winds with a tremendous fuel load that caused that tremendous run that made this fire so devastating, so quickly,” Smith said. “The beetle kill has left behind tremendous fuels up there in the way of dead trees.”
Smith said his department has a fuels mitigation team which tries to spend their days clearing the forest of dead and dry shrubs and trees. However, he said there often isn’t enough funding or resources given to make sure their work impacts the entire county.
While some have called for firefighting to be defunded in order to fund mitigation efforts, Smith said he does not support that narrative. He said local, and federal, agencies need to come together to find a way for both mitigation and suppression efforts to coexist.
“To prevent them in the future is really going to require a longer term approach,” Smith said.
Smith said he supports prescribed burns, some of which already take place in winter months, which could better control the terrain. Many forestry experts say fires are actually healthy for the land, as they can help the area rejuvenate itself over time.
Smith said mitigation efforts, including prescribed burns, could help balance the landscape with different species of trees and vegetation of different ages. He called the concept a “mosaic forest.”
“Losing 100, or a few thousand acres at a time, is actually healthy,” Smith said.
By also applying resources to mitigation, Smith said future fires could be limited in their rapid growth capabilities, giving suppression teams more time to knock down blazes.
“It’s going to take decades; this isn’t going to happen overnight.”