Wildfire has been part of the ecosystem in the southwest for tens of thousands of years.
Our forests and the creatures that live in them have had a long time to adapt to the cycles of wildfire. Look at that thick bark of the Ponderosa. It protects the tree from ground fires which in turn clear out the undergrowth and allow the pines to thrive.
As foresters, entomologists and wildlife experts have observed and studied our ecosystem, they have found more and more cases of adaptation to wildfire’s effects. Unfortunately, for this delicate balance of life, humans have thrown another factor into the picture. For the last hundred years, we have gone to great lengths to suppress wildland fires. Without the periodic burning of wildfire, the available fuel loads in the forest have grown to unprecedented amounts. As previously logged areas grow back, the trees are of a similar age and often grow too close together. Thick undergrowth provides a ladder for fire to climb into the tree crowns. A crown fire is very difficult to stop or contain.
I think we’ve all seen the disastrous results of this situation over the last few years. The southwest has seen hotter and drier environmental conditions that lead to more wildfires and the excessive fuel loads make those fires harder to control. Recent beetle and worm epidemics have worsened the picture. There is another factor to consider, the encroachment of subdivisions into what was previously wildland and ranches has put many more lives and property at risk than ever before.
It is sometimes too easy to think that wildfire won’t happen here, or that if it does, we’ll be taken care of by our dedicated firefighters. Sometimes that is the case, sometimes that isn’t the way life works. There were a lot of people in Durango who didn’t think they were threatened until the Missionary Ridge fire took out their homes 10 years ago. Vallecito still has signs warning of mudslides due to the aftermath of the fires there that same year. The Front Range of Colorado, huge areas in Texas, California and far too many other areas keep reminding us of the loss of life and property that can accompany out of control wild fires.
One of the positive outgrowths of the summer of 2002 fires was the formation the Firewise Council of Southwest Colorado. Firewise is a nonprofit group that represents a cross section of residents in the three-county area of Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties. This is a grass roots initiative that strives to keep lives, homes and property from being damaged by wildfire.
Here in Archuleta County, many partners work together toward this goal. Aspen Springs, Crowley Ranch, Echo Canyon Ranch, Loma Linda, the Lower Blanco, Spring Valley Ranches and Timber Ridge all have volunteer ambassadors who are working on Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) for their respective areas.
Other partners working with them are the San Juan National Forest/Bureau of Land Management, the Colorado State Forest Service, Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department Office of Emergency Management, Pagosa Fire Protection District, San Juan Mountains Association, Southwest Conservation Corps, the Office of Community Services at Fort Lewis College and Los Pinos Fire Protection District. La Plata Electric, local Realtors, insurance agents and the Wildfire Mitigation Professional Association have also been involved.
Firewise of Southwest Colorado helps to educate, coordinate and support the volunteer ambassadors working with their agency partners as they develop plans to protect their subdivisions and neighborhoods from wildfire and to be prepared to deal with wildfire if it does occur.
It is rare that we would consider living in a home here in snow country that didn’t have heat, yet how many of us living in wildfire country are prepared for wildfire?
If you would like to learn more, contact Bill Trimarco, Archuleta County Firewise Ambassador Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 264-0430. You can also check out the Firewise of Southwest Colorado website, southwestcoloradofires.org.