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In the next few months we will be hearing quite a bit about trees and shrubs. The Boulder County Commissioners, and especially Sandy Hume, are very concerned about the possibility of wildfires that could destroy much of what has been built in our area. And of course they are concerned about the risks to life as well. Because of these concerns, several years ago they formed the Boulder County Wildfire Mitigation Group, a multi-agency coalition which is working on hazard assessment, education, and defensible space projects. Edie DeWeese is a member of the task force looking into the problem, and she will be writing about their progress in the WIND in the months ahead.
It’s a difficult problem. The last big forest fires ran wild around the turn of the century and wiped out most what is now lodgepole pine. Since then we’ve had only two big fires, on the Twins (the Butterfly Burn) in the early 30s and the Ouzel fire a few years ago which for a time endangered Allenspark. After a big fire, the progression is grasses and shrubs, then to aspen, to lodgepole, and finally to the very long lived ponderosa pines, which is the climax forest in our area. Where you find stands of ponderosa pines, you are looking at trees that have escaped fire and disease for several hundred years, or at least were not badly damaged when fire swept through.
The good news is that we have plenty of trees. The ridge in front of my house was barren when my grandfather bought the property in 1917. Today the ridge has been obscured by the trees which have grown up since. The bad news is that we have interfered with the natural progression of things by not having the aspens and lodgepoles burn. The result is large numbers of trees growing close together. Since lodgepoles have very shallow roots, especially compared to ponderosas, windfalls have filled many areas with downed trees which make excellent firewood but are often inaccessible, so they remain in place.
Finally, the forest floor is covered by millions of tons of pine needles which make it very difficult to put out a fire once it gets started, as Yellowstone proved a few years ago.
So the question is not what will happen if there is a fire, but what we will do when it happens, as it surely will. That is what the Wildfire Mitigation project is about. It seeks ways to minimize the damage and the risks.
There are more than a hundred trees within a hundred feet of my house. Most of them are lodgepoles, but about forty are ponderosas, some of them very old. One of them is less than six inches from my roof overhang. Fortunately, it’s on the east side. Still, if it blows down, it will do serious damage to my foundation. But a living ponderosa rarely blows down.
Within 30 feet of my house, this is what I’m supposed to do.
1. Thin trees and brush cover.
2. Dispose of slash and debris left from thinning.
3. Remove dead limbs, leaves, and other litter.
4. Stack firewood away from structure.
5. Maintain irrigated greenbelt.
6. Mow dry grasses and weeds.
7. Prune branches to 10 ft. above the ground
8. Trim back branches touching house
9. Clean roof and gutters
10. Reduce density of surrounding forest.
These are all sensible suggestions, although stacking firewood away from the structure I can’t handle in the dead of winter, I have no greenbelt to irrigate, and mowing around my house is out of the question. How do you mow rocks?
But it’s the “thin trees” and “reduce density” lines that really bother me. I love my trees and I suspect many others feel as I do. I love looking at them as they surround my house. I worry about them when the beetles are flying and when the wind blows in the winter. I get my firewood from windfalls. Years ago there were stumps all over the property of trees that had been burned and had died and blown down. The stumps were full of pitch and produced an incredible fire. But those are all gone and now we have an advertisement for Missouri oak in our little paper. So I cut and split what I need for the winter and my needs pretty well seem to match what the forest produces.
I will be interested in the other measures the task force recommends. Meanwhile, I make sure my insurance is paid up and try to remember that trees and houses, even one as old and comfortable as mine, are only material things and in the fullness of time can be replaced. Let’s hope that when the fire comes they are the only things that will be lost.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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