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Living with Wildfires

By Greg Felt

My wife said it and Salida Fire Chief Doug Bess agreed with her. They had grown up together in Salida and neither had ever looked out the window at a wildfire. In that regard, I’d heard many recent comments from community members about “our luck” – the good being the manner in which Chaffee County had, for years, escaped significant wildfire; the bad being the Decker Fire burning on both sides of Methodist Mountain and spreading down the Sangres. The comments ascribed a random quality to recent events that I found misleading.

Mountain Zone Fire Management Officer Chris Naccarato estimates that United States Forest Service (USFS) personnel extinguish 25 fire starts a year in Chaffee County, with half of those ignited by people and the remainder by lightning. They also annually encounter approximately 200 active abandoned campfires. Spend a Sunday afternoon cruising the backroads of the San Isabel National Forest and you will probably encounter a smoldering fire ring left by weekend campers. If the wind is blowing, you may find open flame.

This is nothing new – neither the many near-misses nor the fact that the awful potential of these episodes never seems to be realized. What does it mean when the probability of “bad luck” has proven to be low, to the point of negligible, whereas our “good luck” has grown to appear nearly certain?

Naccarato will tell you that we are fortunate to live in a landscape with clear sight lines and a lot of people enjoying them.

“We don’t have a lot of remote backcountry where smoke can hide,” he says. “And at any given time, there are a lot of people looking up at the hills.”


The scenery is inspiring. It draws the eye all year round, resulting in an informal crew of volunteer fire lookouts numbering in the thousands. Beyond that, during wildfire season, and particularly under red-flag conditions, the USFS routinely stations wildland fire crews and observers at key vista points around the county. Lightning strikes are monitored on radar as well, and teams are sent to investigate them when conditions are safe.

The Decker Fire was started by a lightning strike around 12:30 p.m. on September 8, 2019. I was in the San Luis Valley that day and noted the curl of smoke rising out of the forest around 3:30 p.m. By that time, several dozen citizens had already reported the smoke and USFS personnel were on the scene.

Consistent “good luck” can lead the mind in two different directions. One is entitlement, a complacent confidence that lacks foundation. The other is gratitude, a recognition that good things are driven by causal forces, some of which we can influence, and all of which should be appreciated. At its core, gratitude is about awareness. And awareness is the predecessor of positive action.

For decades Chaffee County residents of all mindsets have benefitted from a certain amount of luck and a considerable amount of hard work, much of it performed by our public land management agencies. But recently, the environment that has supported that good work and good fortune has changed. Generations of wildfire suppression have resulted in vast stands of mature timber, forests that lack diversity and are thereby more susceptible to disease. Add stress from drought, the declining frequency of deep, sub-zero, insect-killing cold snaps, and the simultaneous arrival of a vast and mobile population of spruce beetles, and the result has been the death of 63,000 acres of trees in Chaffee County over the last several years. Above and below these strata of dead spruce are bands of other mature stressed trees – lodgepole, ponderosa, and piñon pines – all of them standing amid a forest floor that is littered feet deep with extremely combustible woody fuels. At this point in time, we are entitled to a disaster.

The psychological impact to Chaffee County of the 2016 Hayden Pass Fire should not be underestimated. Initiated about fifteen miles east of the Fremont-Chaffee line, the mushrooming smoke plume that erupted around July 8 dominated the Salida skyline and the hearts and minds of her residents. Soon thereafter, as approximately 1,500 county residents would come to participate in the Envision Chaffee County community visioning process, forest health and wildfire mitigation were identified among the top priorities for an effort to secure our county’s future. In 2018, county voters passed a conservation finance measure dedicating $250,000 – $600,000 annually to that effort, and a diverse and dedicated team of agency personnel soon convened to craft a “Next Generation” Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The CWPP combines GIS mapping layers of the many “values at risk” with other layers depicting fuel types, topography, and probabilities of catastrophic wildfire. This composite risk map is then further refined with a cost-benefit analysis that shows how federal, state and local funding can be best applied to forest treatment options, leveraging both the dollars and effort expended. At the end of the day (or the decade), it is not the number of acres treated as much as it is treating the right acres that will determine the resilience of our vision.

I’ve been told that lightning never strikes the same place twice. If you believe that, you are entitled to stand on some high place in a storm and celebrate your amazing good luck. On the other hand, I do believe that an area that is once burned (or treated) will not soon burn again. While fire is certainly a natural part of our forest ecosystem, catastrophic wildfire needn’t be. Good luck has carried us along safely thus far. And for that I am appreciative. But my deeper gratitude goes out to the many community members and agency leaders who have stepped forward with an active approach to securing our future. We will never be free of wildfire, but by engaging it on our terms, we mitigate the risk and maximize the benefits, both now and in the future.

Greg Felt is a Chaffee County Commissioner and owner of Ark Anglers in Salida.