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Mountain News — hard times on the Colorado River



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Puzzling story of our fires

DURANGO, Colo. — Examining the trend of increasingly big wildfires in the West, the Durango Herald observes that even during the 1960s foresters had come to realize the fallacy of trying to suppress all fires.

Suppressing fires, they had come to understand, only delayed the inevitable, usually leading to much bigger fires.

Those bigger fires have arrived. Six of the 10 biggest fire years of the past century, in terms of acreage, have happened in the past decade reports the paper. "Nine of the 10 most expensive seasons for fire suppression costs have happened since 2000," it states.

Sifting through records, the Herald finds that the U.S. Forest Service continues to put out fires rapidly, in 98 or 99 per cent of all cases, and does not let fires continue to burn.

Why not? Mark Stiles, supervisor of the San Juan National Forest, says scientists support the let-burn policy, but not the general public. "There's definitely not a huge level of support out there."

Planning Magazine this summer also looked at the same subject through the lens of major fires in Colorado and came to the conclusion that more of the financial burden needs to be placed on local and state governments. Specifically at issue is the number of homes being built in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Such places are typically in forested areas, often close to public lands.

If local governments had to pay for more of the fire-fighting costs, says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., they'd be more strongly motivated to calculate potential costs of putting out fires to save homes in forested areas.

"The fundamental problem is that if we don't have that incentive at the local level, where land-use decisions are being made, then where is the accountability? How do you shift it from the federal taxpayer to the local level? That's what I'm trying to figure out."

He added: "We think it's expensive and dangerous now, and you add climate change to this and it will become a much, much bigger problem."