The first prescribed fire on state lands in five years was recently completed in southwest Colorado.
From October 18-20, a 300-acre prescribed broadcast burn was successfully completed at Lone Mesa State Park in southwest Colorado. The burn was overseen by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC). It was the first broadcast burn implemented by a state agency on forested state lands since 2012.
Returning prescribed fire to state lands is a huge milestone for Colorado. The use of fire as a forest management tool was banned by the governor over all non-federal lands in Colorado after the Lower North Fork Fire of 2012 escaped with dire consequences. State agencies were immediately prohibited from participating in any prescribed fire implementation, including slash pile burning and controlled broadcast burns. During that same year, the Waldo Canyon and High Park wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged critical municipal watersheds for Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.
The wildfires of 2012 highlighted the need for more effective forest management and fire mitigation, and the state legislature responded by creating the Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program (WRRG) in 2013. This program provides financial support for projects that reduce the risk of destructive wildfire to communities on Colorado’s non-federal forest lands, and also requires monitoring to determine the effectiveness of the program.
CFRI has been involved in the WRRG program since the beginning, and our field based monitoring and science syntheses have helped educate policymakers about the importance of fire as a forest management tool. Our local results on lands Coloradoans know and care about documented the great accomplishments forestry professionals have done to mitigate hazards across non-federal lands. However, our monitoring data and reporting also demonstrated that removing fire from the management toolbox limited the program’s effectiveness by restricting capable professional forestry and fire personnel from implementing the best available management strategies.
This information helped give state lawmakers the justification needed to expand the WRRG program. During the first few years, funding was only allocated to mechanical fuels reduction activities. Then slash pile burning projects were funded to reduce fuel accumulation. Now, a full broadcast burn has been funded.
Lone Mesa State Park offers an excellent opportunity to learn about the benefits of fire in combination with mechanical fuel reduction activities. As part of the WRRG program, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute coordinated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and DFPC to implement effectiveness monitoring at the Lone Mesa prescribed burn. The park has been actively managed for fuels reduction and wildlife habitat for many years by the Colorado State Forest Service, which facilitated the opportunity for fire implementation.
Our local science based data informs effective forest management practices from the most remote forests of Colorado to the halls of the state capitol. CFRI staff recently revisited the site to measure burn severity and immediate post-fire effects, and we plan to document the unique benefits of fire and see what grows back next summer. We’re honored to be working alongside policy makers and fire and forestry professionals.
Returning fire to Lone Mesa State Park is a keystone moment in the course of fire management in Colorado – hopefully just the beginning of more success in forest restoration to come. Congrats to all our partners for the great work moving forest management forward, it’s exciting to see years of hard work paying off with results (and fire) on the ground!