WILDFIRESControlled Burns Help Prevent Wildfires, Experts Say. But Regulations Have Made It Nearly Impossible to Do These Burns.

By Jennifer Oldham

Published 15 May 2023

Even though the 2021 Marshall Fire made it clear that the fire threat posed by Colorado’s grasslands endangers large urban areas, federal, state and local rules continue to make it difficult to address the risk.

Colorado’s snowcapped Rockies towered in the distance on a crisp April day as firefighter Emilio Palestro used a torch to ignite damp prairie grass within view of a nearby farmhouse and a suburban neighborhood.

Propelled by a breeze, orange flames crackled up a ditch bank, devouring a thick mat of dead grass, cornhusks and weeds. It was neither too windy, nor too humid, nor too hot — a rare goldilocks moment for firefighters to safely clear irrigation ditches of weeds, grasses and brush that can block the flow of water and spread wildfire.

“At this time of year, it’s a race against what we call green-up,” said Seth McKinney, fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, as eye-stinging smoke curled over newly emerging shoots of grass nourished by a wet winter. “We are threading that needle to find the right time in between a rainstorm, red flag conditions” — when winds, temperatures and dry conditions magnify wildfire risk — “and snow melt.”

McKinney is trying to prevent conflagrations like the Marshall Fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, which killed two people and incinerated 1,084 residences and seven businesses in December 2021. That fire ignited in overgrown grasslands crisscrossed by unkempt ditches, which together spread flames into urban areas with unprecedented speed, according to scientific simulations and eyewitnesses.

The controlled use of fire by expert crews is widely considered the most effective way to reduce the dangerous build-up of grasses and other vegetation that fuel larger conflagrations, experts agree.

But it has become nearly impossible to conduct controlled burns like the one McKinney’s crew set last month. A combination of overly broad restrictions, erratic weather patterns and public resistance have left piles of dead branches and shrubs sitting in open spaces for months.

Figuring out how to overcome these barriers, prevalent throughout the West, is crucial to addressing the fire risk, say land managers whose homes were also threatened by the Marshall Fire.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the forests about what to do to reduce fire risk and anticipate fire behavior,” said Katharine Suding, a plant community ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who is working to update fire modeling of prairie vegetation. “We need to do that in the grasslands.”