Oct 9, 2020 | OPINION | By Julia Chase | Illustration by Bibi Powers
Those of us residing in the area as of late have grown accustomed to hazy days in a normally clear-skied Colorado Springs. After burning nearly 140,000 acres and securing the record as the largest fire in Colorado’s history, the Pine Gulch Fire was finally 100 percent contained on Sept. 15.
However, the Cameron Peak fire, the state’s third largest ever recorded, as well as the Mullen, Williams Fork, and Middle Fork fires, continue blazing as firefighters struggle to contain them amongst unprecedented pandemic conditions. Colorado is not alone in this new reality, as the Western U.S. has been ravaged by record shattering mega-fires in recent months. These fires should not be normalized.
There’s no doubt that extreme drought and hotter-than-usual temperatures driven by climate change left Colorado’s forests vulnerable to such rampant fires, and in discussing the fires with people around me, climate change is never left out of the conversation.
However, a century of inadequate national forest management has, in conjunction with new climate conditions, created unhealthy forests in the West that are ripe for the rife burns that we now witness. Colorado ought to reexamine its cultural perceptions of fire and its forest management practices.
The United States’ approach to forest management in the last century has been to suppress any and all fires, despite the fact that western forests evolved to regularly burn and regenerate. Decades of such a policy left overgrown forest ecosystems in an unnaturally dense and fuel-laden condition.
However, as I previously mentioned, occasional small-scale burnings are ecologically healthy in the West. Indigenous peoples had, for millennia, co-evolved with forest ecosystems and practiced controlled, cultural burnings to improve ecosystem health and strategically select for culturally significant species. Controlled, small-scale intentional burnings were central to native cultures and their symbiotic, highly knowledgeable relations with forest landscapes.
However, the last century of forest policy in the U.S. revolved around fire as the enemy — a dangerous, destructive force at any scale and in any context. Traditional ecological knowledge was pushed aside in favor of a national approach of wholesale firefighting and total fire suppression. The result: an illusion of natural conservation, but a reality of choked vegetation ready to ignite.
Smokey Bear may evoke perceptions of benevolent stewardship of the natural world, but in reality, this iconic American symbol was intentionally harnessed to slyly justify the state’s suppression of sustainable cultural practices in forest communities across the country.
Jake Kosek argues in his book “Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico” that Smokey Bear’s image was intentionally crafted as a benevolent authority in order to undermine the legitimacy of alternative land practices for the sake of the “public good.”
The symbol was intentionally harnessed to shape national perception of forest management so that centuries-old management practices, such as prescribed burnings, were deemed illegal and perceived as a threat to the nation’s forests.
The icon of Smokey Bear has a problematic history, and I recommend Kosek’s book for those who are further interested in the ways in which the U.S. Forest Service has oppressed cultures and sustainable management practices in the name of the public good.
Coloradans ought to re-examine their perceptions and relations with fire. Decades of fire suppression have no doubt contributed to the possibility for the unprecedented, unnatural mega-fires currently tearing through the state. Part of this re-examination means looking to traditional ecological knowledge and the cultural practices of indigenous peoples in order to foster new networks and relationships for managing forests.
California’s government has recently recognized the value of traditional burning practices in preventing mega-fires. For example, the Forest Service is working closely with the Karuk and Yurok tribes in Northern California in order to create healthier, more resilient forest ecosystems and also to revitalize the sovereignty of these tribes’ cultures.
Colorado should look at the partnerships and networks being cultivated by a diverse set of actors in the state of California in order to re-imagine effective mega-fire prevention strategies in the face of extreme drought and intensifying climate conditions.
Another part of this re-examination of fire means re-examining budget allocation. Controlled burnings are a cheap, preventative way to mitigate high intensity fires like the Pine Gulch and Cameron Fire that scorched Colorado landscapes this summer.
In 2018, the state spent $40 million putting out wildfires, but the Forest Service spent only $7 million on preventative work. Substantial funds are allocated toward treating the symptoms with costly retardant drops, manpower delegation, and ineffective resource consumption. A smarter allocation would distribute more money towards the root of the issue — ineffective forest management — and would increase funds to the forest service for prescribing controlled burns.
Simultaneously, partnerships between state agencies and local actors should be created like those in Northern California. Such networks would allocate greater power to private landowners, indigenous people, and forest communities to engage in safely operated controlled burns, in partnership with state agencies, in order to protect local lands, homes, lives, infrastructure, and communities from the increasing risk of high intensity fires.
Colorado has started to recognize its historically problematic and inefficient forest management practices. The Colorado Division of Fire has in recent years created a Colorado Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Guide, which recognizes that fire is an essential ecological process in fire-dependent ecosystems.
Additionally, prescribed burns in the West increased from 2 million acres in 2011 to 3 million acres in 2017. The importance of these preventative measures has been increasingly recognized in the West, but a fear of all forms of forest fire is still ingrained in Colorado culture and the necessary funding needed for mega-fire mitigation (rather than treatment) is lacking.
Therefore, a cultural shift in the perception of fire needs to be made in this state, for the sake of Colorado’s forests, for the people living within them, and for those who have historically used fire in forests as a tool. To put it simply, Colorado need not be afraid of strategically fighting fire with fire.