Communities coalescing

Colorado Front Range landscape partners cross boundaries to reduce wildfire risk

America’s western forests are at risk. We are losing natural treasures to increasingly severe and frequent wildfires. These fires rage through overgrown, dense forests, fueled by drought, wind and terrain. And they threaten nearby towns and cities that rely on these forests for water and recreational opportunities.

To confront this crisis, the USDA Forest Service is working in high-risk landscapes across the western United States. The Colorado Front Range is one of these high-risk areas.

The Front Range Landscape includes 3.6 million acres in multiple jurisdictions and includes private and public lands. Much of this area has already been impacted by severe megafires including: the 2002 Hayman Fire (138,114 acres) west of Colorado Springs, the 2012 High Park Fire (87,284 acres) and 2020 Cameron Peak Fire (208,663 acres) west of Fort Collins.

To change this course, national forests are working with community-based partners to put prescribed fire on the ground. Fire is an essential part of the ecosystem in Western forests – it keeps forests healthy by reducing vegetation density, recycling nutrients and helping maintain wildlife habitat. Planned, prescribed fire is essential for our strategy to succeed.

Wildfire doesn’t stop at property boundaries and a wildfire in the high country can impact people living in cities miles away. Land management agencies and communities must work together across large areas -the scale of a wildfire- to strategically manage forests where it will have the most impact. Solutions need to be multijurisdictional and include partners in the science and research arena, as well as community-connected partners.

“Communities must see themselves reflected in the work we all do,” said Monte Williams, Forest Supervisor of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “When we thin trees along a ridgetop or road to help firefighters catch wildfires or use prescribed fire across public lands to help that forest be more resilient, we need to work together to ensure the communities’ values and concerns are reflected in the choices we make.”

Along Colorado’s Front Range, water resources are typically the primary landscape feature that connects communities. Fireshed partnerships have been forming centered around primary rivers, such as the Cache la Poudre, Big Thomspon, St. Vrain, Boulder Creek, Clear Creek and South Platte rivers. By planning and implementing collaboratively across federal, state, county and private lands, these partners can increase the effectiveness of wildfire mitigation treatments and improve watershed protection outcomes. 

Each of these fireshed-based partnerships is at a different phase of formation, a different stage of “readiness” for large-scale implementation. Over the past year, these fireshed networks have been solidifying their partnerships and working with the science and research community and Forest Service to identify strategic areas where efforts will have the most impact. 

“We need to put the time and effort into getting these communities up to speed on what the problem is, identifying our shared values and discussing our desired future conditions,” Williams said. “It is not a good investment of our time and funding to start implementing work before the communities are ready. The investment we are making through this community-based approach now, will allow us to increase the pace and scale of the work we need to do manyfold in years to come.”

The tactics these fireshed partnerships will use to address the crisis will likely include thinning overgrown forests and burning the slash, which proactively promotes greater diversity in forest and habitat types. Fuel breaks can be created along roads, rivers and ridgelines where wildfires can be more easily caught. These partnerships will support efforts to reduce wildfire risk around private properties that connect to treatments on neighboring public lands. 

Identifying viable markets for raw wood materials that are removed from forested areas will be another important effort of these collaboratives as they work on sustainable approaches to maintain healthy forests long into the future.

New collaborative planning for this type of work is underway across more than 400,000 acres of National Forest along the Front Range. Meanwhile, additional funding and resources allowed the Forest Service to successfully burn record amounts of thinned and piled fuels (more than 25,000 piles) in the wildland urban interface along the Northern Front Range this winter. Prescribed burns are planned this spring in areas that will be critical to reducing the impact of future wildfires on communities and watersheds.

Beyond strategic planning with the Front Range National Forests, fireshed partners have been identifying and leveraging funding to support implementing work across all lands. The collaboratives have also tackled the critical tasks of increasing public understanding of and support for active wildland fire risk management activities at a broader scale, while coordinating and building capacity to implement prescribed fire and other treatments at landscape scales. 

Front Range forests are making a big investment in hiring prevention teams to inform the public about wildfire risk reduction. New collaborative wildfire response agreements between agencies are being funded, from local fire protection districts to a groundbreaking partnership with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. 

“We are coming at this problem from all angles,” said Diana Trujillo, Forest Supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. “Being identified as one of the initial Wildfire Crisis Strategy landscapes and receiving the first influx of funding has made it possible for us to build our team and begin the hard but rewarding work ahead of us.”