With more than eight million acres facing high or very high wildfire risk, Colorado is in the midst of a wildfire crisis. Since 2020, over 700,000 acres have burned in the state. Much of the debate has understandably focused on the role of federal lands, but expanding the use of forest management tools like prescribed fire on Colorado’s state, private, and tribal land would significantly benefit community protection and forest resilience.
Controlled burns, of course, entail risk too. New Mexico’s Hermits Peak Fire of 2022 was the consequence of an escaped burn and resulted in over 340,000 acres scorched and a 90-day nationwide halt on the practice. While this fire was tragic and understandably left many feeling uneasy about the use of prescribed fire, the Forest Service has found that more than 99.8 percent of its controlled burns go according to plan.
The benefits of proactively treating our forests with prescribed fire vastly outweigh the risks, as was made clear in recent high-profile wildfires. When a raging wildfire meets forest land treated with mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, the fire behavior changes, and the flames drop from the canopy to the forest floor, becoming more manageable and less destructive. For this reason, there is now broad consensus among ecologists and fire scientists that prescribed fire is necessary to tackle the wildfire crisis.
While federal lands make up the bulk of forested acres in Colorado, private lands still have an essential role in fostering more resilient forests. 35 percent of Colorado’s forests are found on state and private lands, making private landowners a key player in addressing this crisis. And state policy plays a key role in how controlled burns take place on private land.