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Living In the Shadow of The Beetle

Fire in the Ruins

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, September 20, 2000.

Boulder had a real scare this week, with a large fire on a little less than 1500 acres east of Gross Reservoir. The fire was in a sort of x-shaped canyon that allowed any wind from any direction to be funneled and increase the feed to the fire. It was very dangerous, and not just because of the homes that might have been destroyed. The potential was there for a quick wind shift that could have trapped fire fighters. The mountains west of Boulder are a fire trap, a catastrophe long overdue and being husbanded for an inferno.

It started, if such things must have a date, in the mid 1970's when the first of the large recent infestations by the pine beetle killed huge numbers of trees all across the woods between Boulder and the Peak to Peak Highway. There was much debate on the proper course of action. It was well known and understood that stands of dead trees would increase the risk of a huge fire. I have no direct knowledge of the specific area that just burned, since I have not seen it for about a quarter century when I owned a home on Magnolia Road and I marched around the woods a fair amount. But if the area was anything like my land, interspersed with the blue spruce and aspen and Douglas fir would be groups of twenty to thirty foot trees, dead as they come, that each year shed more branches to the wind and crisp bark to the elements. New growth would often conceal this standing tinder, and you got used to it. You forgot about them.

But even driving to Nederland to this day, you can see many of the dead trees still standing or, more ominously, felled and biodegrading on steep slopes. Visualize, the next time you drive up Boulder Canyon, what a fire would be like starting just east of Nederland in the valley and propelled by Chinook winds down towards Boulder the Damned. Say, next March after a third year of no snow of which to speak. It is the sort of image that makes the hundred year flood scenario more palatable. And unless we get some serious snow this year, it is more likely.

Why, cynical folk ask, were the trees allowed to stand? Why could not all of this wood been turned into firewood, either by selling cutting rights or by allowing the general public to cut trees often already marked as a beetle tree? That conceivably would have both removed all the dead wood plus allowed new growth. It seems so reasonable. Well, it is true that the beetle is a natural phenomenon, and that respect for the forest dictates that things should die and rot in place, just as it would if man were not here. This has metastasized to include the theory that these huge forest fires are normal and ought not to be thought bad because they occur in nature without our presence.

This is correct and not. In land without man, there would be far more frequent but also generally smaller fires surging through the forests. The grass and brush would burn, the dead timber would burn, but often the larger trees, while seared, would survive and there would suddenly be room for new saplings and sprouts to grow. The forest would have many different generations of growth in most areas. But man fights fires, and so entire generations of trees reach senility together more often leaving very dry and huge logs that burn like the gas cubes we use to light charcoal grills. When you think of it, we treat death among the trees just like we treat death among humans. It's all or nothing. With people, we bankrupt the family to wring another four weeks of comatose life out of Aunt Agnes with a funnel down her gut to feed her and chemotherapeutics burning the cancer and nerve cells but don't give her too much morphine or she'll become addicted and never ever bring up the topic of just letting her die again. We love her.

So with family. So with our beloved forests. Let's not let homeowners cut dead trees in the national forest, because it's too much like logging and we don't want to give away our forest for nothing and it would cost too much to supervise. Rather, lets poison the fauna with insecticide that endangers everyone and saves 3.5% of the trees at much greater expense plus bankrupt the county when the inevitable inferno sweeps all before it, including the odd homestead, cow, and fire jumper. We don't count wild animals: their death in a fire is somehow natural. All or nothing. Increasingly, we run the risk of ending up with nothing: neither a healthy forest nor allowing ourselves to receive its bounty in the form of, if nothing else, fuel.

And now, in the third year of a serious local drought, we are confronted again with those damned pine beetles and their deeds and our confused response to them. When one considers all the insecticide, the marking, the wrapping of the cut wood in plastic to quell the beetle, and then account the expense and danger of these huge fires, surely it would have been safer, cheaper, and healthier for the area if some pruning had occurred to allow a more balanced pattern of growth in a softwood forest. Boulder is caught between inevitable floods and fires, and we ought to heed these warnings and allow ourselves to visualize the worst case scenarios of each. These are startling indeed.

This is Dark Cloud and I'll see you next week.