Forest Service fears arson could evolve into problem for the White River forest
Many Americans were shocked by revelations that two of the biggest forest fires in the West this year – including the largest ever in Colorado – were caused by arsonists.
But government planners fear that the inevitable increase in human activity in and around Colorado’s public lands could lead to more cases of arson, including in the White River National Forest.
The White River, which includes land surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley, draws a lot of visitors for recreation pursuits but has a relatively small population on private lands adjacent to it. As the population grows, fires that are accidental, intentional and negligence-based “may be expected,” according to the White River National Forest Plan, a management guide that was released in June after five years of work.
“Unlike national forests in more populated areas, the White River National Forest does not experience arson to the extent that other forests do,” the plan notes. “With increased public use, the White River Forest may, however, also experience an increase in arson activity.”
The Hayman fire southwest of Denver charred 137,760 acres and destroyed 133 homes. U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton has been charged with intentionally setting the fire. She pleaded not guilty.
Authorities suspect she may have started the fire with the intent of putting it out and getting credit as a hero.
The Rodeo fire in eastern Arizona scorched even more terrain – 467,650 acres, and destroyed more than 400 homes. Investigators have arrested and charged a firefighter from a nearby American Indian reservation with deliberately starting it.
Even if arson doesn’t increase in the White River forest, fire activity could increase due to urban development on the fringe and housing development in private inholdings.
“As development occurs, increased pressure will be directed toward the federal land management agencies to protect adjacent private lands and developments,” the forest plan says. “Although there needs to be a concerted and cooperative emphasis placed on reducing hazard fuels near these developments, it is the ultimate responsibility of individual landowners to reduce the fire hazards on their property.”
The plan also notes that increased use of forests – by hikers, cyclists and four-wheel enthusiasts – creates a “double-edged sword.”
“As human activity increases and members of the public spot more ignitions, they will aid in the reporting of fires and in some cases aid the Forest Service in keeping wildfire acreage low,” the report says.
On the other hand, greater wildfire threat from more use of the backcountry could pose problems with “increased fire size and intensity,” according to the plan.
“These remote areas coupled with high dispersed use may present a significant wildfire prevention dilemma to land managers in the future,” the report concludes.
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