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Collaboration Supports Prescribed Burning on the Colorado Front Range – Part 1

November 10, 2022

by Daniel Bowker, Forest & Fire Project Manager, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed

The Northern Colorado Fire Landscape

Two uncharacteristically large and severe wildfires have burned into and around the Elkhorn Creek watershed in the past decade. Elkhorn Creek is a major tributary of the Cache la Poudre River, one of the primary sources of water for the city of Fort Collins. The 2012 High Park and 2020 Cameron Peak Fires resulted in post-fire flooding, erosion, and debris flows that impacted water quality, degraded wildlife habitat, disrupted lives and livelihoods, and left large high-severity burn areas that may have difficulty regenerating and sustaining future forests. Proactive forest management to reduce tree density is a proven strategy for building forest resilience and reducing the risk of high-intensity wildfire; fire is an important process in forest systems, and we can’t and shouldn’t seek to eliminate fire altogether, but by modifying forest conditions, we can support less intense burns in the future.

Forest treatments also enable safer and more effective firefighting during a wildfire incident.  For example, during the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, the forest restoration treatments that the Larimer (formerly Fort Collins) Conservation District had installed on the Drala (formerly Shambhala) Mountain Center property helped to reduce wildfire intensity and behavior so firefighters could more safely access the property, protect structures, and engage with the fire to prevent further spread to the east.

Land managers can use many methods for reducing tree density, including mechanical forest restoration with heavy equipment such as feller-bunchers and log skidders, where whole trees are removed from the forest; hand thinning using chainsaws to remove smaller trees while piling limbs and tree tops (aka slash); and prescribed fire, which includes slash pile burning as well as broadcast burning, where fire is applied to a larger landscape under prescribed conditions. Broadcast burning not only reduces tree and ground fuel density to reduce future wildfire risk, but it also restores important ecological functions to an ecosystem that evolved with fire.

Smoke hangs over an open meadow with a single tree after the Elkhorn 4 prescribed fire has burned through the area. Photo Credit: Katarina Warnick.

Implementing these types of forest restoration and wildfire mitigation treatments on the landscape is a complex and expensive endeavor, so it is important that treatments achieve maximum benefit in reducing potential negative wildfire behavior, protecting communities and water quality, and enhancing other benefits like wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Treatment benefits are multiplied when they are strategically aligned following prevailing wind directions, along waterways, or adjacent to highly valued resources such as homes and infrastructure. The larger and more connected treatment areas are to one another, the greater the benefits will be. The upper Cache la Poudre watershed is characterized by a checkerboard of ownerships and a mix of wildland and wildland-urban interface (WUI). To achieve the kind of contiguous treatments that can impact wildfire behavior, it is critical to mitigate fire risk on private lands in addition to federally managed lands, to maximize the benefit to the landscape as a whole.

Prescribed broadcast burning is a crucial tool in these lands, as it is often the most economical and efficient treatment option for tackling larger areas. On U.S. Forest Service land, burns are planned and implemented by USFS burn bosses and crews. However, on private lands there is no single agency or group responsible for prescribed burning. Because of this, many different agencies and organizations must collaborate to bring together funding, resources, and personnel to accomplish prescribed burns on private lands.

Collaborative structures like the Elkhorn Creek Forest Health Initiative (ECFHI) and Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative (Fireshed) expand responsibility for and benefits of forest treatments.

In 2015, the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, the Larimer County Conservation Corps, Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, and The Nature Conservancy collectively formed the Elkhorn Creek Forest Health Initiative (ECFHI), with the goals of reducing high intensity wildfire risk, protecting water quality, improving forest resilience, and increasing local sawyer capacity in the Elkhorn Creek Watershed. The Ember Alliance has recently joined the ECFHI as an active partner, while the Larimer Conservation District works collaboratively with ECFHI partners in the Elkhorn Creek landscape on treatment development, planning, and implementation.

Forest management treatments can be expensive, running from a few hundred dollars per acre for broadcast prescribed fire, to $2,000 or $3,000 per acre for mechanical restoration. Through ECFHI, many local, state, and national sources have contributed over $1.4 million to forest treatments, staff time, pre- and post-treatment monitoring, prescription development, and other management costs. Funding has come from a broad range of stakeholders, including New Belgium Brewing, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Patagonia, Colorado State Forest Service, Peaks to People Water Fund, Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Conservation Exchange, City of Fort Collins Utilities, Colorado Department of Local Affairs and Coalitions and Collaboratives.

To maximize wildfire mitigation and other environmental benefits, the ECFHI has strategically placed treatments nearby or adjacent to other projects. For example, just to the west of the ECFHI project area is the USFS Magic Feather Collaborative Project, a 6,000+ acre treatment area encompassing federal, state, and private lands. The thinning and burning treatments that are part of the Magic Feather project will help to make the ECFHI treatments more beneficial by reducing potential extreme wildfire behavior coming from the west, while the ECFHI treatments will carry the benefit of the Magic Feather treatments further to the east to help protect the community of Glacier View Meadows. Check out the map below to see how mechanical restoration and prescribed fire treatments completed by several agencies were strategically placed to intercept wildfire coming from the west and slow it down before it hits communities including Glacier View Meadows and Red Feather Lakes.

Map showing several treatment areas around Red Feather Lakes and Glacier View Meadows, CO, and the Cameron Peak Fire.

Forest management under the ECFHI began on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, a 3,200 acre forested property owned by the Longs Peak Council of the Boy Scouts of America, situated along Elkhorn Creek, and protected by a conservation easement under the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program. To achieve the goals of the ECFHI, over the past seven years project partners have utilized different types of forest management treatments on the Scout Ranch. These treatments on the Scout Ranch now total over 900 acres, while the ECFHI has expanded to other adjoining and nearby private properties for another 135 acres treated. The Larimer Conservation District has also done its own work on the Scout Ranch and neighboring properties over the past several years that serve to multiply the benefits of the ECFHI work.

Because many fire management groups share responsibility for burning on private lands, all the organizations and agencies involved also share the risk of putting fire on the ground. To facilitate self-organizing, risk sharing, and the multitude of agreements it takes to collaborate on prescribed fire and other forest management projects, at least 28 organizations in Northern Colorado have joined together into the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative. The Fireshed is made up of representatives from federal, state, and local natural resource agencies, non-profits, community groups, and researchers, all dedicated to collaborating to increase the pace and scale of effective landscape-scale wildfire mitigation and forest health treatments.

Through the Fireshed’s Operations Subcommittee, forestry and fire management practitioners coordinate treatment designs, plan management activities for maximum effectiveness on the landscape, and break down organizational barriers to actively collaborate on projects.  With this enhanced operational framework up and running, a recent development has been to prioritize and coordinate treatment plans in advance of major grant opportunities so Fireshed members are not competing for limited funds for management work, and instead work as a group to decide which projects are most impactful and ready to implement.

Elkhorn Unit 4 Broadcast Prescribed Fire – Oct. 15-16, 2019

Smoke from the Elkhorn 4 prescribed fire rises into the air as a larger tree torches. Photo Credit: Katarina Warnick.

Though the Fireshed had not reached its mature structure at the time of the Elkhorn Unit 4 prescribed burn, the general form was in place, and allowed for effective organization and communication among 13 fire management organizations, led by The Nature Conservancy, to implement this nearly 600 acre prescribed fire. As most are aware, the first day of prescribed burning on Elkhorn Unit 4 went very well, burning several hundred acres with good results. However, on the second day of burning, the prescribed fire escaped and was declared a wildfire as it burned onto private property east of the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch. The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control undertook a comprehensive review of the incident, and you can read their full report here.

For questions about the DFPC report and review process, please contact DFPC Public Information Officer Caley Pruitt at caley.pruitt@state.co.us or 720-391-1565.

Though the escape of this prescribed fire was a setback for private lands fire management in Northern Colorado, it also vividly demonstrated the importance of the Fireshed’s collaborative framework in handling such an incident. Within days of the escape, the Fireshed met to support The Nature Conservancy as they handled communications with affected residents, and conducted a full after action review to analyze how the Fireshed could improve communications and notifications for future prescribed burns.

One concrete outcome of the incident is that Fireshed members now communicate with mountain community residents in essentially the same way that the U.S. Forest Service has handled messaging around its prescribed fire events. The Fireshed has a standardized communications template to support consistent communication around upcoming prescribed fires; that template is used on the Fireshed website and social media, and in direct email communications to individuals who have signed up for US Forest Service and Fireshed notification lists. It is also available to all Fireshed partners for use on their individual websites and social media.

The Elkhorn Unit 4 prescribed fire escape demonstrated the importance of the Fireshed and its partners continuing to reach out to mountain and urban communities and hold events that highlight the importance and effectiveness of wildfire mitigation and forest health treatments on the landscape. The Fireshed has always and will continue to hold field tours and demonstration days where stakeholders and the public can come out and see management techniques in action, and the progression of the landscape over time after treatment.

Photo credits: Colorado Forest Restoration Institute

The Fireshed also supports the science and monitoring necessary to understand the effects of these treatments on the landscape and communicates this information to the public as it becomes available.  Part 2 of this series, to be published in Dec. 2022, will go into the details of the ecological effects of the Elkhorn Unit 4 prescribed fire. Monitoring and modeling results show that the fire was very effective at achieving its objectives.

As the wildfire problem in the West grows, organizations like the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative are dedicated to meeting the challenges of forest and fire management on the Colorado Front Range. It will take all available methods to significantly mitigate the risk of wildfire, and broadcast prescribed fire is one of the most effective techniques we have in our toolbox.

This is part 1 of a two-part blog series. Part 2 can be found here: https://nocofireshed.org/collaboration-supports-prescribed-burning-on-the-colorado-front-range-part2/