Where there’s fire, there’s fuel.
That’s the short story of what happened in Colorado’s high country in the last months and why it’s unlikely that the fall snows on the peaks will smother the blazes still to come, whether they be sparked again this year, next year or some years hence.
Trees, after all, have been a flashpoint in Colorado for a couple decades now.
Ever since wind storms slammed down mountain pine beetle-killed lodgepole pines in the high country along both sides of the northern reach of the Continental Divide, a battle has raged over how to deal with the forested lands ravaged by the bug.
The pine beetle bores into older trees, committing the arboreal equivalent of exsanguination. Younger trees have more sap and greater resistance and thus can fend off the insects.
What the beetle left behind has frightened foresters and others familiar with the need for forest management for years now.
The U.S. Forest Service put out warnings to hikers in the backcountry to beware that they could be crushed at any moment by dead trees falling without warning.
The warnings were far from idle — there are millions of trees in Colorado affected by the pine beetle, the skeletons tottering on dead root systems until they finally crash to the forest floor.
On a somewhat lighter note, many business owners and residents of places such as Granby, Estes Park and other small towns now in the way of this fire — or the next one — got used to hearing compliments from visitors and newcomers about the beauty of those rusty, red pines that contrasted so attractively with the green pines nearby.
Of course, those red branches were dead, and tinder dry, but new arrivals frequently failed to grasp the gravity of the threat those colors portended.
Those red pine needles fell eventually to earth, leaving behind spooky looking pine “skeletons,” or denuded trees shorn of their coverings.
Loggers and others recognized the fire threat posed by those red and skeleton-like trees and lobbied the U.S. Forest Service to take action.
Bound by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club — which opposes commercial logging on public lands — the Forest Service took little action to stymie the threat beyond approving some projects allowing loggers to cut down beetle-killed trees for a boutique “blue-stain” lumber market.
Seems the beetle’s predations leave behind a blue-tinged lumber prized in some quarters.
But the vast bulk of the beleaguered forest remained untouched by loggers’ chainsaws.
It’s true that lodgepole forests are regenerated by fire, but any effort to prompt new growth by the use of controlled burns and other management techniques have stalled.
It seems that this year’s spate of fires is just the thing the forests needed to begin regeneration.
The problem is, however, humans, their towns, roads and utilities are now in the way of the fires, which spewed out smoke that covered the state and left Coloradans again coughing and seeking filters from the soot.
Gov. Polis has seized on climate change change as the cause of the fires, but it’s a distraction.
Polis, whose bid for governor attracted $600,000 from the Sierra Club, isn’t about to call for more forest management, even in the face of greater climate threats.
That money speaks far more loudly than the paltry number of votes in quaint little touristy towns in the Second Congressional District that Polis once represented.
When Coloradans look for who is responsible for the fire-ravaged slopes of the Colorado Rockies and the grimy air that the fires left behind, they’d do well to follow the sooty footprints leading to offices of the Sierra Club and to that of the governor of Colorado, who up until now have blown smoke without having to breathe it back in.
Gary Harmon is a reporter and columnist who has covered environmental issues in Colorado for 30 years.
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