June 28, 2012--Experts warn public policy must change in wake of wildfires (Colorado Independent)

Public policy and political will must shift as dramatically as the winds that have whipped Colorado’s record wildfires, experts say, or the state’s residents will continue to pay a higher and higher price for forests that are dying due to global climate change. “We know now that it’s not just dry conditions that drive fires,” said Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “There’s enough data that show fires are very clearly linked to warming – warming that’s been going on throughout this region for years. Fire season’s about two months longer than it used to be in the West in the last 25 years.” That was the startling conclusion and nearly unanimous opinion of politicians, federal officials, scientists and advocates gathered at the “Forests at Risk” symposium in Aspen earlier this week – a gathering hosted by the nonpartisan Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
The meetings came as Denver set an all-time temperature record of 105 degrees, the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire was blowing up west of Colorado Springs, the record-breaking High Park Fire continues to rage near Fort Collins, and Colorado politicians are imploring the federal government for more help. “We are seeing larger and more intense fires throughout the country,” said Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service. “Since 2000, 10 states, mainly in the West, have experienced record fires. These fires have enormous costs. Our fire suppression budget can exceed a billion dollars. Our fire preparedness budget can exceed a billion dollars.”

Sherman, speaking via video from a critical wildfire command center in Denver, noted that national forests provide water for 66 million Americans, recreation for 173 million Americans and sequester 11 percent of the carbon emitted in the United States every year. “People think these resources are free until they’re gone, and then they realize how important they were and how costly it will be to replace,” Sherman added. Dozens of wildfires that have raged across Colorado this drought-stricken spring and summer have taken four lives, burned down hundreds of homes and severely degraded Front Range water supplies. Just the state’s share of fighting the wildfires has already reached nearly $40 million. “If [climate change] is a reality, and it is,” said Jim Lockhead, CEO of Denver Water, there needs to be far more political will and overall funding of forest treatment and restoration. Lockhead said Denver Water spent a combined $26 million on dredging, maintenance and cleanup after just two fires: Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002.

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