Making northern Colorado prescribed fire a team effort

The Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University is helping local land managers team up to bring the benefits of controlled, prescribed fire to the landscape.

The Institute, or CFRI, housed within the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship department, moves seamlessly between the public and private sectors to help partners evaluate and advance their initiatives. In 2017, it joined the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, the Nature Conservancy, and local fire protection districts to attempt something that’s never been done before: chart all future interagency prescribed burns in northern Colorado onto a single map.

These agencies and organizations have all typically conducted fire research, mitigation, response and suppression within their own jurisdictional boundaries. Colorado’s slow 2017 wildfire season allowed the time and resources for this burgeoning partnership to explore how to implement a more strategic approach to fire as a tool for forest management.

group of people on a hillside
Fire scientists, managers and practitioners discuss needs for the Elkhorn Creek Burn during their inaugural field excursion.

CFRI performs a dual role within the partnership. Its researchers support collaborative learning among the partners and contribute scientific expertise for pilot projects. Building this collective knowledge and the confidence to use fire as a management strategy is critical to restoring fire’s historic benefits to shape ecosystems.

“Sometimes it’s not about the flames or the data; it comes down to just getting the right people together,” said Brett Wolk, assistant director of CFRI. “Collaborating with others was the only way forward in order for any one organization to have success.”

Mike Caggiano, a CFRI research associate, led a field excursion that brought together over 30 practitioners to view and discuss the needs of prescribed fire projects proposed on public and private lands in the Red Feather Lakes area. This focused the discussion toward further leveraging the group’s collective expertise, resources and equipment across the landscape, regardless of political boundaries.

“More and more, land managers on both public and private lands see prescribed fire as an effective way to create the resilient landscapes necessary to protect our watersheds and sustain our communities,” Caggiano explained. “While there are social challenges to overcome, the work we’re promoting has a strong ecological foundation.”

prescribed fire next to a creek
A prescribed fire The Nature Conservancy led in Fall 2017 protects Elkhorn Creek from more severe wildfires in the future. (Photo courtesy of Weston Toll, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed)

Fire and water are inseparable in northern Colorado, and using prescribed fire to mitigate the risk of severe wildfires in the Cache La Poudre River Watershed is a high priority for the partnership. Many regional residents remember when rains washed sediment and debris left over from the destructive 2012 High Park Fire into the Cache La Poudre River, temporarily turning it into a black slurry.

Wolk said using prescribed fire has consistently become one of the most effective ways to prevent future watershed contamination and to keep homes in fire-prone areas standing. It’s for these reasons CFRI’s role in forest restoration research becomes imperative for the partnership.

man in hat holds measuring tape
Brett Wolk sets up a research site to collect pre-burn data on USFS land.

Institute researchers, along with partner scientists, are synthesizing current knowledge about the ecological benefits of using fire as that management tool. They have been actively collecting pre- and post-burn data for the Nature Conservancy’s Elkhorn Creek Burn at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch near Red Feather Lakes in the fall of 2017, as well as preparing for a larger burn the U.S. Forest Service is planning for spring 2018. This ground data as well as their research that models costs and benefits of different treatment strategies can help direct strategies to optimize the outcomes of future prescribed fire efforts.

“Measuring the effectiveness of fire management and resulting ecological changes for variables such as plant community composition, forest structure, and fire hazard helps everyone move forward and learn together,” Wolk said. “We’re putting all this knowledge into a data-driven, decision-making support system for land managers.”

The partnership plans to build on these collaborative and scientific baselines. This year, the group is jointly planning several cross-boundary prescribed burns in northern Colorado that will move seamlessly across private and U.S. Forest Service lands.

The idea of burning across borders wouldn’t have been considered even just a few years ago, but now, the map and the broader effort CFRI is facilitating could become the roadmap for strategies on other forests and landscapes across Colorado.