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The Dangers of Living in the "Fire Plain"

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Trees burning in forest fire.  Corbis.  All Rights Reserved.
Trees burning in forest fire. Corbis. All Rights Reserved.
 By Kathleen RyanContact
August 13, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - You may have heard of a flood plain, but what about a fire plain? Some researchers are suggesting that thinking about forests in the same way we think about rivers may help stem some of the devastating damage we've seen in recent months from wildfires in Colorado and other western states. The idea is to either limit development in fire-prone areas or make sure the development that occurs is done in a way to encourage safety. That means tin instead of cedar shake roofs, or keeping woodpiles and brush away from buildings.

Dr. Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, says it's important to remember that fires are a part of the forest ecosystem.

"Whether or not we continue to build and live in the mountains just isn't the question. I think people are always going to want to do that. It then becomes, 'Well, how do we do that the way that minimizes the impacts?'"

Sloan Shoemaker, the executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, says living in some of Colorado's forests is a calculated risk.

"Former journalist Ed Quillen, he called it 'the stupid zone,' people choosing to live in forests that must burn. They evolved to burn. It's only a matter of when, not if."

And Tony Cheng cautions that forests aren't like rivers, with a predictable course.

"Fires can occur just about anywhere and we don't know where the point of initiation is going to be. We don't know how it's going to spread. It's all going to be very weather-dependent."

He notes most of the 347 houses destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire were located what people thought was a "safe" zone outside of heavily-wooded areas. By contrast, the High Park Fire outside of Fort Collins burned about 88,000 acres and 259 houses in a more typical forest mix.

This week, Colorado's U.S. Senator Mark Udall is hosting a hearing on wildfires and forest health in Colorado Springs, looking at what lessons can be learned from the fires to help in future suppression efforts. It's scheduled for Wednesday, August 15, at 10 a.m. at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Information on "fire plain" research can be found at texasforestservice.tamu.edu; the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute is at warnercnr.colostate.edu.

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