At the time, the destruction of the Hayman blaze stunned both Colorado and the country. Images of flames ripping through communities and reducing mountainsides to ashen moonscapes prompted many to criticize the US Forest Service, whose management policies had disrupted the pattern of cyclical fires that periodically swept through wilderness area cleaning out dead trees and debris but without the catastrophic consequences. By doing that and by encouraging clear-cutting rather than selective cutting, the Forest Service unintentionally made forests prone to bigger, more destructive fires.
“We understand 100 years later that fire is Mother Nature’s way of keeping nature clean, it’s housekeeping,” says Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, an organization that helped restore charred forests in a watershed larger than Rhode Island. “What we have here is the law of unintended consequences that’s coming back to haunt in full blush.”
Forest ecologists say severe, recurring droughts since the mid-1990s have weakened trees throughout the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, opening the door for infestations of bark beetles. Weakened and dead trees pile up on the forest floors, leaving carpets of flammable debris that, due to budget cuts and shifting policies, aren’t cleared out or burned in a controlled manner.
Add to that the fact that housing development has pushed into areas that were once considered too remote for building – what land specialists called the “wildland-urban interface” – and standards for building “defensible space” around houses vary widely. Many homeowners landscape with water-intensive lawns and many are averse to unsightly preventative burns or smaller scale timber harvesting – known as “fuel reduction” designed to prevent the buildup of flammable tinder.
“In the last 20 years, everyone wants to build a house in the forest, everyone wants a second home in the forest out west and people are failing to recognize they’re building a house in a very fire-prone habitat,” says Mark Ashton, a professor of forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in New Haven, Conn. “People are building houses out in the wilderness because it’s beautiful, and it is, but Mother Nature doesn’t recognize that. Urban dwellers have divorced themselves from the realities of nature.”