LITTLETON – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper suspended prescribed forest burns Wednesday after federal officials confirmed that the deadly blaze was started by a state-overseen fire that raged out of control.
The governor and Colorado State University, which oversees the Colorado State Forest Service, also in Jefferson County.
“A complete and independent review into the cause will take place,” said Hickenlooper, who is slated to return Thursday from a four-day trade mission to Mexico, in a statement. “There will be plenty of time to review what happened. Until then, we urge everyone to support the firefighting efforts and keep those directly affected by the fire in your thoughts and prayers.”
Meanwhile, the Colorado State Forest Service issued an apology for failing to keep the prescribed burn under control. The fire erupted March 26, four days after crews finished the planned 35-acre burn on Denver Water Board property, when strong winds carried embers across a road and into the forest.
“This is heartbreaking, and we are sorry: despite the best efforts of the Colorado State Forest Service to prevent this very kind of tragic wildfire, we now join Colorado in hoping for the safety of those fighting a large fire, and mourning the loss of life and property,” said Forest Service deputy chief forester Joe Duda in a statement.
The fire has killed two people–an elderly married couple–while another woman is reported missing. As of Wednesday evening the blaze had spread across 4,140 acres and destroyed 27 homes, according to Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley.
Prescribed burns have become a favorite option of forest managers to deal with dry and diseased trees, but the effectiveness and safety of such burns is expected to come under scrutiny as Coloradans grapple with the fire’s aftermath.
At least one Jefferson County resident lashed out at the state Forest Service during an afternoon briefing, according to 9News.
“Would you have done a prescribed burn in your neighborhood knowing it was one of the driest months in Colorado history, knowing it would be windy four days later and no sign of rain for the next three weeks? Would you have done it by your house?” asked Glenn Davis of Conifer. “I need accountability, my friends need accountability.”
“One of the primary roles of the Colorado State Forest Service is to help keep forests healthy and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires through fuel reduction,” said Duda. “Prescribed fires are a well established tool in this effort, with many measures in place to make this tool as safe as possible.”
The alternative to burning trees is to cut them down, but thinning has become a political lightning rod in Colorado and the West. Environmental groups argue that thinning, even with the intent of removing fuel, sometimes increases the risk of fire by spraying dry needles and twigs on the forest floor.
Environmentalists also worry that approving thinning projects will lead to more expansive logging operations that could result in profits for timber companies. Industry advocates counter that the timber industry is virtually moribund in Colorado, and that only two large mills remain, down from as many as 65 in the 1970s.
Bill Gherardi, president of the Colorado Forestry Association, said he hoped federal and state officials would open up more public lands to logging to help reduce fire danger, if not to help struggling logging companies. But he wasn’t particularly optimistic.
The 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder, the most expensive in state history, burned 6,200 acres and destroyed 168 homes. “And yet there was no new [thinning] initiative in Colorado,” said Gherardi. “How many houses will it take? How many people have to die?”