Simply mentioning the phrase “forest fire” or “wildfire” can spawn fear across the state of Colorado. And there’s a good reason for that fear. In a place that’s so dry, arid, and wooded, just a few sparks can quickly grow into one of the most destructive natural disasters known to mankind. While many of the worst forest fires seen in the Centennial State are the result of reckless human behavior, a lot of these fires also happen naturally, as they did long before people had the ability to start them. In order to better understand forest fires, it’s important to understand the natural purpose that these destructive phenomena serve.

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Wildfires have been around since the dawn of the forest, first started by natural phenomena like lightning and then eventually also started by man. Fire is one way a forest is able to cleanse itself, paving the way for new growth.

Forest Fire - MrPants - OutThere Colorado
Wildfire. Photo Credit: MrPants.

One expert named Dr. Timothy B. Mihuc, a professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh, has said that forest fires have a regenerative effect on the forest. According to him, fires are “revitalizing for the watershed, [they] renew the soil, and [they] reset the clock for the ecosystem”, turning back time 200 years. In other words, they’re essential for the long term survival of forests. In fact, there’s evidence to show that certain trees and plants have adapted to only produce seeds following a fire. Without fire causing this to happen, some species of trees can stop spreading, eventually ending up on the decline.

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Frequent smaller wildfires also provide a means of preventing massive fires with a much larger reach. A side effect of frequent fires is that a lot of new growth occurs. New growth doesn’t burn as powerfully as dense forest, meaning that fires often lose their momentum when they hit younger patches within a wilderness. Without frequent fires occurring to naturally thin-out wooded areas that were once quite dense, fires are able to reach a more powerful state, making them much harder to stop.

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For example, think about building a campfire. If twigs are used to start the burn, they’ll quickly light but the fire won’t last long. If a thick log is used, it will take longer to catch flame, but burn more powerfully once it does. Forests work the same way. The small stuff burns up quickly, but if there’s enough of it, it can spread to the slower burning, heavier wood that is much more powerful and harder to stop.

Burnt Trunk - Viesinsh - OutThere Colorado
Wildfire. Photo Credit: Viesinsh.

Of course, there’s no debate that forest fires are capable of causing massive amounts of damage, both to property and human life. For example, take the 2013 Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs. Raging for 9 full days, roughly 500 homes were destroyed, more than 14,000 acres of trees were burnt, and 2 people died. The economic impact was also substantial, with local newspapers reporting that over $90 million in damages were caused based on lost homes alone. In addition to that, $9 million was spent on fighting the fire – roughly a million dollars a day.

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No one can argue that forest fires aren’t dangerous. They’re powerful, often uncontrollable, and they move quickly – at seven miles per hour through dense forest and up to 14 miles per hour through grass before accounting for wind. The video below shows this speed and how it varies between trees and brush:

On the one hand, a forest fire is destructive and dangerous, and on the other hand, it’s essential to the long term survival of an entire ecosystem. This creates a dilemma. As modern technology has made preventing and stopping forest fires easier, less fires occur, and when they do, they don’t have the same reach as they once did. While this is great for protecting humans and their property, it can also have several negative effects.

As fewer fires occur, less of the forest is naturally thinned-out, resulting in more trees getting bigger and bigger and situated in closer proximity than ever before. Not only does this mean that these bigger trees are fighting for larger portions of already limited resources, their close proximity also makes them more susceptible to allowing the spread of wildfires.

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One measure of defense commonly used in Colorado to prevent forest fires is the selective thinning of forests. By cutting down a certain number of trees in an area, it can help prevent a forest from reaching a hazardous level of density, as well as open up the space for new growth. It is, however, very time-consuming and requires a lot of manpower. While this process is used to make some areas of Colorado less forest fire-prone, it’s a difficult strategy to implement statewide and is sometimes met with backlash from various environmentally-focused organizations.

The impact of fire in nature is undeniable and quite prominent. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 150,000 fires were started nationwide in natural areas during 2016, burning close to 10 million acres of land, 5.5 million of which was uncontrolled burning. As cities across Colorado continue to expand, often pushing their populations closer to natural areas, the risk of a potential wildfire is amplified. It’s important to understand how massive fires can be prevented, but also what real benefits fires have in order to open the door for discussion about safely approaching the subject of controlled burns and selective logging. It might not be ONLY YOU that can prevent forest fires, but by working together we can find a way to live with both the forest and the fire in the safest way possible.

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