May 20, 2022

Fire And The Front Range: A Conversation With A Wildland Firefighter

Fire And The Front Range: A Conversation With A Wildland Firefighter

Living in Boulder, Colorado, I find myself out in Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks(OSMP) public lands, trail running, hiking, climbing, or biking nearly every day. Often I run into teams of OSMP workers and volunteers laboring under the hot sun or bitter cold doing trail maintenance, restoration, surveying, and other forestry work. Given my love for public lands, my curiosity usually gets the better of me. I have to stop and find out what these groups are working on. Last summer, I was constantly on the Shanahan Ridge trails and Mesa Trails. These trails are in South Boulder, ranging from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to the south edge of town.

Photo From USDA Forest Service

In late spring, I saw a massive team doing forestry work in the area; they were felling trees, clearing lower branches off, clearing debris, and much more. The scale of the project initially had me worried. From an outsider's perspective, it looked like they were taking out nearly 50% of the trees. At the time, I had minimal knowledge of fire prevention, having only read about controlled burns, a method used to mimic the naturally occurring forest fires to protect forest health safely.

Finally, after seeing this team numerous times, I stopped for a chat to find out what they were up to. I spoke with Ben Cook, the Forestry Crew Lead for the fire prevention project. Ben explained that because that section of forest is so close to the neighborhoods, they wouldn't do a control burn, so they have to mimic its impact and stage the forest to be resilient to future fires. They want to space out the trees and minimize underbrush to do this. The idea is that if a fire sweeps through, it won't ignite the overstory, the higher canopy of pine branches. At a high level, they cut smaller trees and low-hanging branches to create space around the trunks of the larger trees that are more resistant to fire. They mirror the impact of natural fire by doing this, making the forest healthier and more resilient to future fires by removing 'fuel' from the understory.

At the time, my curiosity peaked. How could culling the trees like this be so beneficial? Was this really similar to what happens in these forests in recovery from fires? Was this the more sustainable practice? All questions I felt I needed answers to, but Ben had a forestry team to get back to and was short on time, and I left that conversation feeling like I'd uncovered something vital.

NCAR Fire At Night- Photo From: KDVR News

Eight months later, on March 26th, 2022, the NCAR Fire would start right in the foothills neighboring this area of forest. This fire came on the heels of the Marshal fire that burned thousands of homes. All of South Boulder was immediately evacuated as we watched the reports come in... "zero containment." The immediate efforts of fire teams helped ensure that no houses were lost despite being so close to the large neighborhood. Still, my mind traveled back to last summer and my conversation with Ben. I'd just witnessed the crucial benefits of fire mitigation firsthand!

I immediately contacted Ben again, who was kind enough to connect me with Chris Dirolf, a Forester and Wildland Firefighter at Boulder OSMP with a 13-year career in fire mitigation. Chris agreed to meet with me to discuss the breadth of work he and his teams take on and illustrate how controversial and crucial fire mitigation in Boulder is.

Aaron Kennedy: So, does your crew do both fire mitigation and active firework? So if a fire were to break out, do you have to hop on a truck and take that on?

Chris Dirolf: So we basically respond to all local wildfires, if a fire was to start within Boulder or we [may] get requested to come help with fire that's in Larimer (a neighboring county). Our overhead direction when working on fire is the City of Boulder Fire Wildland Division. Our main focus for this job is forest restoration and fire mitigation work. But when there is actually a wildfire, that's when we respond locally. We also respond nationally and go out on what's called deployments or rolls.

So typically, we send two or three people out on [a] crew and [they're] going on for two weeks, potentially extended for 21 days. But essentially, you go out, and you fight fires nationally. A lot of the time, we're staying in Colorado because there are fires here, but we've traveled everywhere in the country. Virginia to California, so it's part of our job to respond to fires locally, but then we also respond nationally.

It's like two different sides, but it's all related. If you know anything about forest ecology in the West, kind of everywhere, you know that fire is part of this ecosystem. So whether it be prescribed fire or fire mitigation or forest restoration, it all kind of blends into itself.

Like we saw in the last fire, one of the holding features that we had and we felt confident about was that's an area that we had worked on in a previous season, and it did what we needed it to do, brought this fire basically to the ground enough to where we can hold on to it as firefighters.

Aaron Kennedy: So was that the Shanahan Ridge project last summer?

Chris Dirolf: It was not last summer's project, it was a project that was completed about ten years ago, I think. We had mitigated that area previously, and on the south end of the fire, it got into that stand. It did what we needed it to do. You know, part of the intent of what forest restoration goes about doing is reducing fuels and making it an area where we could actually go in and work as firefighters. In line with restoring a forest, giving Ponderosas the space they [need]. Like last Wednesday, was that the fire last week?

Aaron Kennedy: Yeah, Wednesday (referring to a smaller, more recent fire just south of the NCAR Fire on April 6th, 2022).

"... a lot of it has to do with the fact that fire isn't part of  this regime any longer."

Chris Dirolf: Wednesday, that was actually in the project area that we had completed last season, which is pretty interesting because we had done a lot of work in there. We had really, really dramatically changed the landscape, and one of the things [we did] in that area was to open up a lot of the limited habitat we have here, [which] is prairie grassland. So we don't have any meadows left. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that fire isn't part of this regime any longer. So what do you have? You have trees, and they take up all the meadows, but we need those critical ecosystems. So part of that area was not only a firebreak, was not only to reduce fuels in the area but also to open up these meadows and [let] those meadow ecosystems come back as well. So that actually worked out pretty well because it was really dense in that area. So whatever caused that fire, we could get around it quicker.

The wind obviously is a huge factor in when that happens, but we were able to get around that fire and manage it pretty quickly. So yeah, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we went in there, and we just cut the regeneration out. We drove up to that fire. Previous to this, there's no way we would've gotten trucks near enough to literally get our engine there and just start putting water on it.

Aaron Kennedy: Can we dive a little in on the difference between restoration, mitigation, and prescribed burns and why you would decide to go about either of those strategies in certain areas?

For background on these topics, Chris recommended reading a book called The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan and a TED Talk called “Mega-Fires”. Links to these can be found at the bottom of this page.

Chris Dirolf: So in 1910, there was there was this big fire called Big Burn, and it burned millions of acres, through Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. All these fires went off, and these towns were burned over. The whole country said: "What are we going to do about these fires?" "Who's going to stop these fires" and the Forest Service said: "We can, but you have to fund us, you have to preserve these forests, and you need to give us all the stuff we need." And what they did was establish the 10:00 a.m. Rule, and essentially that means every fire that starts anywhere in the country [is] put out by 10:00 a.m. the next day. That rule lasted up until I believe, the 70s. There's a lot of stuff on this, but this is kind of the quick and dirty of what's going on.

So what does that mean? That means there's an overpopulation of trees because everything is allowed to grow. When you understand these ecosystems, restorative [work] makes a lot more sense because these places we live in are fire-adapted over millions of years. The ponderosa pine has developed really thick bark to deal with low-intensity ground burns. Or we have a lodgepole population that's up a little bit higher than has stand-replacing fires. They have what's called the serotinous cone. It germinates through heat. It's really important because it takes away all the old, the fire comes in, burns away[everything], and the old new stand regrows right in. Fire works on so many different levels in so many different ways.

So what was allowed to happen with that fire is Ponderosa has dropped their cones, and then all this regrowth comes up, and it grows and grows. No fires were there to mitigate, and now we have this massive fuel loading. If you look at a picture of the Front Range in 1910 and then you look at it now, you'll see a significant difference in the density of trees. That's really important to understand that it shouldn't look like this, and that's a hard thing for us because we come in and we cut trees, [because] right now that forest in the lower montane is unhealthy. So we have all these factors leading to this overpopulation of trees.

"That's really important to understand that it shouldn't look like this... right now that forest in the lower montane is unhealthy."
The Front Range in 1910 as seen from Chautauqua Park, Boulder, CO

The Front Range now as seen from Chautauqua Park, Boulder, CO

"In the simplest way, that's the best plan for our American West."

So, back to your question about how this all ties together; we have not seen fire in this landscape for over a hundred years. In almost every corner of this Front Range, let alone the West. I mean, we're talking millions of acres. So now what do we do? We can't just light fire in this landscape because we have what is now a fuel load. You have huge, huge fires that burn because it hasn't burned in a long, long time. Over 100 years of needle cast in this duff layer and the branches and trees falling over and all these things, over 100 years without anything cleaning it out right now. So we established what's called the Forest Ecosystem Management Plan- we as in the city- to deal with some of these issues. So a group of foresters got together, and they said, "we need to start thinking about this issue." And we can't just put fire back in for many reasons, right? So now we go in, and we mechanically remove the fuels, or we rearrange the forest structure to create space to create what fire would have done basically. And then eventually, we come up with a burn plan, and we reintroduce wildfire into that ecosystem. In the simplest way, that's the best plan for our American West.

Aaron Kennedy: I think as someone who's seen a lot of these fires come, and obviously some of the fires that have gotten out of control, the thing that comes to my mind is what are the biggest restrictions on that type of work that you're talking about? Do fire crews like yourself need more funding? Do you need more permission? Do you need more light? What's going on?

Chris Dirolf: I mean, money, personnel, equipment, terrain, weather, you know, to actually put fire back in the ecosystem our conditions have to be almost perfect, right? So it can't be too wet, can't be too dry. You know, and then you shut it down immediately if smoke goes the wrong way. It is definitely not [that] simple. It's a little more complicated ecosystem. I think a lot of [our limitations] are politics.

If we're talking about cost, if there are helicopters involved dropping buckets on things or planes dropping retardant, costs are huge. And the manpower that goes into that, I mean, it could be three million dollars. What I will say is that for our crew to go in and mitigate an area of 200 acres, which is actually the same size as the fire that we just saw, we could get that amount of land, and then we reintroduce fire into the area, we're talking like maybe $100,000, $200,000 as opposed to $3,000,000. If we can pull it off, it's going to save a [lot] of money. Aviation is something that pushes the cost up.

Aaron Kennedy: I hear a lot of fear around prescribed fires, but I'm starting to also hear about more prescribed fire projects getting planned. So at the Colorado Open Space Alliance conference last year, I learned that JeffCo (Jefferson County) is talking about rolling out some more projects like that. Do you think that has a bigger place moving forward?

Chris Dirolf: Yes. I mean, I think that people are coming around to the idea. If you go to Flagstaff, Arizona, that is a place where forests are managed really well. That's a great example of what we should do. If [we] ever go down there for a wildfire, I call it a vacation because you get there, you see it's been burned before, it's burned regularly, it burns up to the containment area, and it doesn't burn that big because there's not a lot of fuel. So it's this constant burning, of course this all changes if conditions become extreme.

Now the big thing is obviously if you do the prescribed fire on the wrong day, the wrong time, or something happens, then you're putting people's lives and homes at risk, potentially. But I think people are coming around to the fact that this is a way we can kind of live better here.

Aaron Kennedy: Well, I really appreciate your harping on those points. How bad could these most recent fires have been had we not been doing that mitigation work and have those projects in the last couple of years?

"Everything was so dry that every tiny root or plant under the soil was burning."

Chris Dirolf: It's so hard to answer that question because I think it helped a lot, but I think a lot in a wildfire, once you sort of start to understand what fire is on the landscape, it's all weather dependent. I think weather and mitigation helped a great deal. I believe that we were better prepared to deal with it on the south end of that fire because of the mitigation work that we did. Absolutely. No question having less fuel in that area made it easier for us to work and bring the fire to the ground. If we hadn't done that work, I mean, it could have gone to Golden. I mean, if the winds suddenly picked up out of the north and started pushing 100 miles an hour, it's a completely different situation, and we wouldn't have been able to work in there.

Photo From: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

The Calwood fire (October 17th, 2020), we say that the "dirt was burning". Everything was so dry that every tiny root or plant under the soil was burning. It wasn't going out that easy. We had to work really hard, and again, that fire was helped by weather in the end, like it’s how we could hang on to it until weather came through.

I say this because there are areas that were mitigated and it worked really well. Then there are areas that were mitigated and still it literally burned everything organic. You know, and that just depends on the topography and wind at that time and the relative humidity at the time and where the fire was south or north facing slope. There are so many factors.

So it's a really complicated thing to say. The short answer is yes, I think it really helped, and I think it's really important. I think definitively, we can say that because of the mitigation work done in that south side that we were able to work in that area and do the job we can do. But how far could it have gone? Wind and weather are everything.

Aaron Kennedy: So obviously, all the work that goes into this is essential. Are there things the general public can do to either better support you or prevent wildfires moving forward?

"...if we get just a thumbs up when we're doing our work, when people understand what's happening, that really matters."

Chris Dirolf: Yeah, through [Boulder] Open Space & Mountain Parks, we have volunteers come in to help out with some of the forestry work that we do, helping us slash essentially, which is a real big help to us.

I started 13 years ago, and I mean, we'd get yelled at by people. Things like "What are you doing cutting trees?" And we still get that, but I think a lot of the support can come from just being educated about it and saying, "Hey, great job. Keep up the good work". One of the biggest things is if we get just a thumbs up when we're doing our work, when people understand what's happening, that really matters. Just that alone is a pretty simple thing, but the more educated people are [on this], I think, the better.

Aaron Kennedy: I think a big piece that was missing for me when I was starting to learn about the work you do, although it can look like it's a negative impact or that it's a malicious clear-cut that's going to wreck an ecosystem, most of the time you're trying to imitate what would have already happened in the past.

Photo From:

Chris Dirolf: Yeah! We're basically trying to, in very rudimentary ways, mimic fire. What would fire do in this in this area? When we're done cutting in the area, we create snags, and for fires, snags are bad. You're trying to make it safe for everybody in an ecosystem. The dead tree is actually more living than that alive tree. So we have a lack of this habitat, and that is a snag. So we will purposely make snags in those areas because fire isn't around to do it. So we're trying to just mimic fire in every way we can, and we're not perfect, but it's, you know, the best we can do in this situation.

Reflecting on the conversation with Chris left me with a deeper understanding of fire and it’s place in the rocky mountain ecosystems. I am still grasping to understand the full complexity of it and how we deal with it but I can now view the work they do through fresh eyes. Seeing mitigation and forest management as a means to create a safer and healthier environment. Chris, Ben, and the other Wildland firefighters often work a thankless job. Forestry is not black and white, but having been evacuated, and seeing wildfire so close to my home twice in the last few months, my appreciation for their work is endless.

Thank you, Chris. Thank you, Ben. Thank you to all of the teams of workers and volunteers for your efforts to keep the ecosystem healthy and Boulder safer.


The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

TED Talk: Mega-Fires

Interview By: Aaron Kennedy

Copy, Editing, and Formatting By: Nico Schweiger