TRENDS Podcast: Wildfires – Destruction to Rejuvenation

The TRENDS podcast is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Boulder County and KGNU. It dives deep into the community’s most pressing issues and explores the changes happening throughout Boulder County through the experiences of community members, especially those often rendered invisible by commercial media, to shed light on community challenges, solutions, and pathways forward for the county and the country.

Listen to the  TRENDS podcast on Wildfires below:

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In 2020, wildfires burned more than 625,000 acres across Colorado, causing estimated damage of almost $200 million.

The Calwood Fire, view from Highway 119, October 17, 2020.

According to the recently published 2020 Ecosystems TRENDS Report, rising temperatures in Boulder County have resulted in drier summers. The report is a collaboration between the University of Colorado at Boulder, The City of Boulder, Boulder County, and the Community Foundation for Boulder County. It shows that the trend in the number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Boulder has been rising steadily since 1990, with the 10-year average increasing from about 19 days per year in the 1990s to 39 days per year in the 2010s. It is worth noting that 2020 alone has had 51 days over 90 °F! This data suggests climate change is contributing to a longer fire season.

Ecologists also worry that fires are now burning at higher elevations in areas that were never before hot and dry enough to burn.  It is estimated that fighting the fires in Colorado required 38 helicopters, 198 fire engines, and more than 3,000 firefighters.  In addition, air quality in Boulder County was worse than at any time during the last decade.  Heat, drought, and high winds combined to make 2020 the worst fire season in history, with two of the fires breaking records in size and duration.

Forest fires feed off trees and undergrowth that have grown exceedingly dense. Over the past century, the US Forest Service has focused on fire suppression, rather than prevention.  Now, more attention is being placed on prevention, given the costly losses from the fires.  Managing the forests, including cutting down young trees, can help eliminate fuel for wildfires. 

Mark Grandie, from the US Forest Service, says that small trees in the forest can become “ladder fuel.”  “This means that if a little tree is somehow on fire, it has the potential of lighting bigger trees.  Once the fire gets into the higher areas of the forest, it becomes much harder to get under control.”  

Sorkin-Coehlo Family – Cutting Trees and helping Restore the lands in the Pike National Forest

One way of mitigating this risk is to cut down trees smaller than six inches in diameter to relieve the forest floor of unnecessary fuels.  The US Forest Service has devised a program to allow Boulder County families to cut Christmas trees for a fee, to help with this fuel mitigation process.  For Grandie this is a win-win situation, “the public can help mitigate the risk of fires and they can, in turn, cut their own Christmas tree to take home.”

One of the worst fires in Boulder County this year was a record fire in the lands of Cal-Wood Education Center in October.  Rafael Salgado the executive director says they were already struggling due to the pandemic when the fire came.We as an organization have experienced some difficulty, just like most people in 2020, because of the pandemic,” says Salgado. “It has been hard for us to figure out what to do next as we don’t have the schools that have come to Cal-Wood.  And then in October, we added another challenge, the fire that burned half of the property. We lost 600 acres of property, and we had a hundred percent mortality of vegetation, especially pine trees. And that is really heartbreaking for us because this is a place where we have made a lot of memories with the kids that come up here.”

But Salgado is optimistic for the future of the center.  “We hope to get the kids involved, the schools of families that come up here and help us to design a new forest,” Salgado explains.  He intends to collaborate with scientists and state environmental agencies to build a new forest that can resist a fire in the future while ensuring the biodiversity of the forest.  Salgado says that the community wants them to survive because they have an important mission to provide outdoor education for low-income families and, especially Latino students, for whom Cal-Wood is often their first time experiencing nature.

Rafael Salgado -Executive Director Cal Wood Educational Center

“We lost 600 acres of property, and we had a hundred percent mortality of vegetation, especially pine trees. And that is really heartbreaking for us because this is a place where we have made a lot of memories with the kids that come up here.” — Rafael Salgado, executive director, Cal-Wood Education Center.  



In the Trends Podcast, we explore the impact of wildfire and how it can lead to rejuvenation in the eco-system. We hear how the climate crisis is increasing the intensity and frequency of wildfires and what that means for our community, particularly communities who are already facing barriers when it comes to accessing open spaces. In the following panel discussion, we further explore the impact on our community and how we can all get involved.