The Joint Chiefs' Landscape Restoration Partnership between the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service aims to restore landscapes, protect water quality, enhance habitat, and reduce wildfire threats to communities and landowners across the country. This a story about the latter and how government agencies and private landowners came together to mitigate the damage of Colorado’s largest wildfire on record—the Cameron Peak Fire.
In the most extreme cases, wildfires can burn as hot as 2200 degrees Fahrenheit, with flames over 150 feet tall, and can consume entire football fields of wildland within seconds. These once uncommon megafires are becoming more frequent and exacerbated by climate change and warmer/ drier temperatures.
According to National Interagency Fire Center data, the top 10 years with the most burned acreage have all occurred since 2004, coinciding with the warmest years on record nationwide. These megafires are large. They are hot, and they are hard to fight. At least that was the case with the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, which burned for nearly four months, spanning 208,913 acres across state, federal and private lands.
“When the fire moves like that, it’s not something you want to get in front of, to try to stop. It’s too dangerous,” said James White, a fuels management specialist at the Forest Service with over 25 years of experience in fire management. White, who worked on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests to contain the Cameron Peak Fire, witnessed that extreme fire behavior. He watched as the intense flames moved from the ground up into the canopy traveling quickly across the landscape and leaving mostly scorched earth in its wake.
But White also recalled some success stories from that fire. How areas that had been treated by federal, state, and private land managers served as a buffer to dampen the intensity of the fire and slow its spread.
Those past treatments involved removing excess wood, also known as fuel, from the forest floor. By removing excess fuel and overgrowth a wildfire's potential for extreme and dangerous activity is diminished, said White.
One case involved a Buddhist temple, the Shambhala Mountain Center, on a piece of private property surrounded by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.
The Cameron Peak Fire was blazing, moving quickly toward the temple with flames that towered over the landscape as it approached. But then, as the fire drew near, something interesting happened. The fire crossed over into an area of land nearly a mile wide where the forest floor had been treated to remove excess vegetation. The fire lost its intensity and became manageable to the point that firefighters could get in front and get it under control.
“It’s hard to know how much further the fire would have spread, if not for that treated area,” White said. “But what is clear, by making sure that burnable materials are scarce we can mitigate these fires’ level of intensity.”
White and his team had treated the area surrounding the Shambhala Mountain Center 5 years earlier. They conducted what is known to firefighters as a broadcast burn. Broadcast burning is when dead wood and vegetation on the forest floor are ignited by trained personnel. These low-intensity, controlled fires remove the excess fuels that would enable wildfires to burn hotter and longer. Eliminating fuels on the surface also makes it harder for wildfires to climb high up into the forest canopy, resulting in a slower moving, less intense fire on the forest floor.
Broadcast burning not only makes the landscape more resilient to wildfire but also reduces the risk of harmful effects on the ecosystem. For example, extreme fire temperatures can kill trees and damage root systems just beneath the soil. By relegating fire mostly to the forest floor, tree canopies are left intact, which protects soil from erosion during heavy rainfall and enhances a watershed's ability to provide clean water.
“Broadcast burning, mechanical thinning, and other treatments are proven to mitigate wildfire risk, but they are even more effective when we work together to integrate treatments across the landscape, across borders and ownerships,” said White. “Up until about 5 years ago, we were implementing projects as the opportunities arose.”
The result of this fragmented approach to forest treatments could be seen from the air in patches scattered across the landscape. In recent years, the Forest Service has teamed up with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to take a more focused and collaborative approach through a national program called the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. This program aims to bring together federal, state and private land managers to improve the health of forests where public forests and grasslands connect to privately owned lands. By creating interconnected landscapes that are resistant to wildfire, the USDA agencies hope to better protect communities, infrastructure, cultural sites, and natural resources across the country.
“While the Forest Service has more control on how to manage the landscapes within national forest borders, NRCS is primarily focused on private lands and coordinating with landowners,” said Sam Adams with the Fort Collins field office. “As we connect with the community and provide information on how to maintain resilient forests, a private landowner will come to us and we’ll work on a plan together. Then we'll work together to implement that plan. In the meantime, the neighbors are watching, and they're curious and they’ll have questions and the cycle continues, and that’s something we want to see.”
When NRCS works with private landowners they are trying to reach objectives for the landscape’s ecosystem but also individual landowner’s desires. For the manager of the Shambhala Mountain Center, a bountiful forest with a healthy ecosystem was their top priority, while fire mitigation was towards the bottom of the list.
“We were really interested in being good stewards of our land,” said Michael Gayner, the executive director of the Shambhala Mountain Center. “And we realized that when we take care of our land that really contributes to the health and resilience of the surrounding area.”
The Shambhala Mountain Center staff began working with NRCS in 2017. Of the 650 acres of land owned by the center, 122 acres were treated by mechanical thinning to reduce overcrowded stands by 40-60%. This type of treatment helps to support greater biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Mechanical thinning, just so happens to also make forests more resilient to wildfire.
The latter would play a critical role when the Cameron Peak Fire approached the center on September 26, 2020.
“The winds were blowing at 80 miles an hour, causing the fire to spread at a horrific rate,” said Mac McGoldrick senior director of built and natural environment at the Shambhala Mountain Center. “The fire zoomed up to the center. The fire coming off the ridgeline from the west was pouring down into the valley like water.”
Soon after the Cameron Peak Fire entered the area where the Forest Service and NRCS had conducted treatments, the flames dropped from the canopy to the forest floor and slowed allowing firefighters room to get in front, get the flames under control, and ultimately contained.
Of the 75 structures on the land, 19 were burned, and it is expected that without the treatments that the entire property, the structures, and the forest would have been destroyed. Later, a forestry class from Front Range Community College conducted a tree morbidity study surrounding the Shambhala Mountain Center. Their assessment found that in untreated areas 72% of trees died from extreme heat while in treated areas only 8% of trees were killed.
Gayner says the forest treatments were not just about the Shambhala Mountain Center protecting its assets, but part of a much larger picture. “We are really happy to have played an important part in getting the fire under control, and potentially saving our neighbors to the east. It was amazing, that we had an opportunity to be of service and that is what the world needs.”
“Most people think preventative treatments such as broadcast burning or mechanical thinning are ugly,” said White, “They don’t want to see their nearby forest burned or thinned. The irony is that these unpopular treatments have saved many areas. The areas that were treated, where Cameron Peak Fire had burned through, managed to keep many of their trees.”
Forest management best practices and partnerships between the Forest Service and NRCS are being shared across the country to restore landscapes, protect water quality, enhance habitat, and reduce the effects of extreme wildfire. Visit the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership website to learn more.