Wildfire Experts Share Insight into Black Forest Fire and Importance of Mitigation

By Wells, Garrison | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), February 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Wildfire Experts Share Insight into Black Forest Fire and Importance of Mitigation


Wells, Garrison, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO)


Wildfire experts are likely to be studying the Black Forest fire for years.

They will look at what caused it, how it progressed into the most damaging wildfire in Colorado history and how it could have been ameliorated.

Two local experts asking those questions are Walt Seelye and Keith Worley. The two were part of a team that has studied the Black Forest fire. Their analysis was presented to Gov. John Hickenlooper and more recently to an El Paso County Black Forest fire recovery committee.

Seelye is a Black Forest resident, former volunteer firefighter and Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners treasurer. He is also treasurer of the Black Forest Fire Rescue Protection District.

Keith Worley is a Larkspur resident and driving force behind one of the first Firewise Communities/USA sites in the nation. He's a professional forester, a Certified Arborist and wildfire mitigation specialist. He is also the secretary and past president of Pikes Peak Wildfire Prevention Partners.

The two answered questions from The Gazette this week.

Gazette: What are the risks and responsibilities for residents living in a wildland urban interface area?

Seelye: Risks are fire, flood and storms, including wind, hail and tornados. Responsibilities include behaving safely to avoid injuring someone, damaging property or triggering fire - and managing their property to minimize the effects of natural disasters. These actions protect home owners and their neighbors.

Worley: Firefighters call it situational awareness, being aware of the risks around you and taking responsibility for them. For property owners in the urban interface, they own the fuel; they own the fire. Think of a floodplain or coastal hurricane area in terms of awareness and responsibility.

Gazette: Why do you believe people living in wildland interface are hesitant to mitigate?

Worley: First, it's lack of understanding about how unnatural their environment is.

Second, is well intentioned, but misguided, sentiment of environmentalism. People brag about how many trees they saved when they built their house in an overgrown forest, as if this was a good thing.Third, loss of touch with the land. Keep in mind where most WUI dwellers come from - cities and suburbs. Ask a group of forest dwellers today if they've ever raised radishes or carrots. In my experience, 80-90 percent have not. Anyone who has grown radishes or carrots usually understands how plants become scrawny, stunted and sickly if grown too close together. Just like our forests. How many ranchers do you know who cannot cull out their herd? Or, farmers who do not weed or thin out their crops to raise healthy plants?

Seelye: People are afraid the result will look unnatural, even scalped, but we have many examples of property looking even better after mitigation. Mitigation requires great effort and significant expense. Some owners have neither means nor ability. Others are unwilling to commit resources.

Gazette: How much of a difference would mitigation have made in the Black Forest fire?

Worley: All you have to do is look at Cathedral Pines and State School Section 16 to see how fire behaved in a more natural manner. Keep in mind there is more to this than just mitigating forest fuels. It also means hardening structures to be more ember resistant. Research, going back to the late 1990s, has shown that 80 to 90 percent of structures are lost to embers - not the raging crown fire.

Seelye: Mitigation did make a difference on some individual properties. Better-mitigated adjacent properties, such as mine, where the fire intensity was reduced, stopped the fire 100 feet from my house. The best scenario is an entire neighborhood mitigates. A good example of this is Cathedral Pines, where only one home burned.

Gazette: You've called the Black Forest area "unnatural forest." What does that mean?

Worley: There have been three major human interventions in the forest:

- Overharvesting of trees in the 1800s. …

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