Changing snowfall makes it harder to fight fire with fire

DECKERS, Colo. (AP) – Dripping with flaming fuel as they go, a line of workers slowly descends a steep, snow-covered hill above the South Platte River in central Colorado, setting fire to piles of woody debris that burst into flames shooting up two floors.

It is winter in the Rocky Mountains, and fresh snow cover allowed the crew of 11 to safely contain the controlled burn.

Such operations are a central part of the Biden administration’s $50 billion plan to reduce the density of western forests that have exploded into firestorms as climate change bakes the region.

But the same warming trends that make wildfires worse will also test the administration’s attempts to guard against them.

The increasingly erratic weather means the snow isn’t always there when it’s needed to safely burn large piles of debris like those in Colorado’s Pike-San Isabel National Forest. And this seriously complicates the work of the exhausted firefighters now forced to serve year-round.

Their goal is to cut and burn enough vegetation so that the next fire here won’t be as catastrophic as those that razed vast forests and neighborhoods in Colorado, California, Oregon, Montana and Utah. elsewhere.

Wildfires in the West have become more volatile as climate change dries out forests already thick with vegetation after years of intensive fire suppression. And the window for controlled burns is shrinking.

“It’s been a little tougher just because of the shorter winters,” said David Needham, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who led Colorado’s burn operation in late February when the thermometer hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. (minus 18 Celsius). The surrounding hills showed barren scars from past wildfires, including a 2002 blaze that destroyed 133 homes and was at the time the largest in state history.

“On days like this, we capitalize on the fact that the temperature is negative,” Needham said, “Even small snowstorms coming in certainly help us with that.”

Across the Rockies, heaps of debris and trees felled to reduce fire danger stretch for some 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares), waiting to be burned once the right amount of snow is in. ground. Sometimes there are too many, which makes the batteries inaccessible. Other times, there is not enough snow and prescribed burns are canceled so as not to spiral out of control like a precedent that resulted in fatalities.

One night of snow in central Colorado meant the Forest Service crew and the Mile High Youth Corps could burn debris twice the area they had planned. Still, officials said climate change is making it harder to find that sweet spot to burn safely.

Spring is coming earlier and snow-covered ground is disappearing two weeks earlier, according to David Robinson, a Rutgers University researcher and New Jersey state climatologist, who has reviewed more than 50 years of collected snow cover data. by satellite imagery.

“One thing we know about climate change is that it’s increasing the variability and the extremes that we’re experiencing,” Robinson said. “In the West, once the seasons change, you get very dry, very quickly and it stays dry for months. So you have a very narrow window there.

2020 was the worst wildfire season on record in Colorado, where summers and fall were also hotter and drier, said assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger. It’s “a completely different ballgame in terms of wildfires,” she said.

For parts of the Rockies, this winter has brought too much snow, forcing officials to delay burns. Meanwhile, parts of Wyoming did not receive enough snow to wet the ground and allow fuel piles to burn. Even when there is snow, that doesn’t mean it will last until the debris stops smoldering, said Brian Keating of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.

When pile burns turn into wildfires, Keating said it’s usually because the snow around when the burn started disappears. The next windstorm can kick up embers and ignite a landscape that just days ago seemed fireproof.

Delaying the burning of piles also has consequences. Until the piles are gone, forest managers won’t start another type of controlled fire called a broadcast burn, which consumes vegetation in stands previously thinned with chainsaws and other equipment.

“If we don’t burn the piles, … it can be pushed back in a year or two,” Keating said. “And every year we keep building this backlog of stacks because we can’t reach them all.”

Another problem is smoke: burns can be delayed if smoke exacerbates poor air quality.

Despite these obstacles, the burns are crucial to the Biden administration’s 10-year plan to reduce wildfire risk on nearly 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) of public, private and tribal lands. The recently passed infrastructure bill includes $500 million for controlled burns over five years.

Last year, prescribed burns and logging were used to reduce wildfire risk in about 4,050 square miles (10,500 square kilometers) of forest – the most in a decade. By stepping up that, officials hope to get ahead of the problem and use less logging in years to come, said Frankie Romero, who oversees the forest service’s prescribed burn program.

“Once we go into a maintenance cycle and can continue to treat that same area while it’s in its preferred state with a lot less fuel, then it becomes a lot easier,” Romero said. “We are going to experience forest fires in the future… and they are going to cause problems. The hard part is trying to remember what these issues would have looked like if we hadn’t intervened sooner.

Conservationists warn that the scale of the proposed work could allow excessive logging that will harm forests and do little to prevent catastrophic fires.

But Oregon State University forestry professor John Bailey said the choice is between out-of-control wildfires raging across the landscape and aggressive measures to at least partially counter the forces of climate change.

“Failing to take on this challenge is choosing a future with lots of wildfires and almost no control over where they start and where they spread and how much smoke is in the air and for how long,” Bailey said.

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On Twitter, follow Brittany Peterson: @BrittanyKPeters and Matthew Brown: @MatthewBrownAP

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