Column: Poor forest management fuels wildfires

Tom Kress, Douglas County Commissioner | Jun 21, 2023

Wildfires have become increasingly devastating in recent years, ravaging massive areas of land, destroying homes and businesses, and endangering lives. I wanted to take a moment to address and offer a chance for our residents to hear the other side of the story when it comes to addressing the threat of wildfires. While we have all heard the plethora of attention given to addressing “climate change” which involves the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns and how they have adversely affected ground conditions, I’m here to discuss the real culprit behind the intensity and frequency of wildfires, the lack of proper forest management. 

Bottom line, I believe the lack of proper forest management is fueled by neglect. Local, state and federal agencies are neglecting a crucial aspect of wildfire threat assessment by allowing the unnecessary accumulation of ground fuels, the spread of invasive species, and the disruption of natural fire cycles which have resulted in catastrophic blazes that have devastated our lands. In order to properly address minimizing the threat of wildfires effectively, we must prioritize comprehensive forest management strategies that emphasize prevention, mitigation and sustainable practices. 

The failure to address fuel accumulation is a significant factor in the severity of wildfires. Over time, dead vegetation, fallen trees and accumulated debris create a substantial fuel load, providing ample material for fires to burn and spread. Without proper management, forests become literal tinderboxes just waiting to ignite. Healthy forest management practices such as regular thinning and controlled burns have been proven to significantly reduce fuel loads, breaking the continuity of flammable materials and mitigating fire risks. 

Invasive plant species also pose a grave threat to forest ecosystems, altering the natural balance and increasing fire susceptibility. These non-native plants often outcompete indigenous species, forming dense vegetation that is more prone to ignition and accelerate the rapid spread of wildfires. Again, implementing smart forest management practices by utilizing proactive measures to control and eradicate invasive species is essential for preserving the health and resilience of forests, reducing fire hazards and restoring the natural biodiversity. 

Historically, fires have played a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Native plants and animals evolved with regular low-intensity fires, which cleared out undergrowth, stimulated new growth and prevented the buildup of hazardous fuel. However, fire suppression policies aimed at protecting human lives and property have disrupted these natural fire cycles. As a result, forests have become denser, more susceptible to catastrophic fires, and less resilient to fire events. By reintroducing smart forest management practices like controlled burns, managed wildfires, and invasive species eradication, we can restore the ecological balance and decrease the risk of uncontrolled infernos on our forest lands. 

Forest management goes beyond the purview of government agencies alone; it requires the active participation and preparedness of local communities. Education programs, public awareness campaigns, and the development of community-based fire response plans are vital steps towards preventing and combating wildfires. By fostering a sense of responsibility and empowering individuals to implement fire-safe practices, we can establish a collective approach to forest management that complements governmental efforts. 

Embracing sustainable forest practices is crucial for long-term fire prevention and ecosystem health. Logging, reforestation and forest thinning can help maintain forest density at appropriate levels, reducing fuel accumulation and enhancing resistance to wildfires. Properly managed logging operations have been proven to help reduce the severity and spread of wildfires by creating firebreaks, removing excess fuel loads, and promoting forest health. By sustainably harvesting dense stands, loggers can reduce the density of trees, creating gaps that slow down the progression of fires and limit their intensity. Leaving burned over dead trees to rot is not only poor management, but also inviting a vicious cycle of dangerous wildfires. It is clear to see that not doing the above work for the past thirty or, so years is really starting to have a negative effect on our forest lands. Federal forest managers are aware what needs to be done to have healthy forests, but they are so thwarted and hamstrung by special interest groups and overzealous interpretations of environmental protection policies that they now play a deadly game of Russian roulette by allowing naturally occurring fires to smolder untouched even during fire season. 

While there are those who only want to talk about climate change and its contribution to the growing wildfire crisis, it is clear that the lack of proper forest management plays an even bigger role in its escalation. Fuel accumulation, invasive species, disrupted fire cycles and the need for sustainable practices are all pressing issues that demand immediate attention. By working together to prioritize comprehensive forest management strategies, we can mitigate the devastating impact of wildfires, protect lives and property and restore the resiliency of our forest lands. It is time to recognize that effective fire management is not only essential for the present, but also for the long-term health and sustainability of our ecosystems. 

  • Tom Kress is the chair of the Douglas County Commissioners.