RUSTIC, Colo. -- Tramping over a charred mountainside here one foggy morning, Matt Champa glowed with satisfaction. "Deer and elk will love this," said the U.S. Forest Service "burn boss," gesturing to a cluster of blackened trees that eventually will fall and create more space for forage plants.
Champa and his team set fire to this area last month, part of the 1,900-acre Pingree Hill prescribed burn on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland to improve wildlife habitat and create space that firefighters could use to defend nearby residents and the Cache la Poudre River from a wildfire.
The Forest Service and its partners hope over the next decade to carry out a series of such prescribed burns in Northern Colorado to protect communities and the river, which supplies water to about 300,000 people.
Public and private landowners across the West are increasingly using prescribed fire to reduce wildfire danger. Over 3 million acres were treated with prescribed fire in Western states in 2017, up from the roughly 2 million in 2011, according to a survey by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils Inc.
But mountains, a dry climate and air pollution concerns make it difficult to safely set the region's forests on fire. Burn bosses who manage prescribed fires struggle to assemble teams because federal, state and some local firefighters qualified to work on a burn could leave anytime to fight a wildfire elsewhere.
And controlled burns can be unpopular, even dangerous. After a 2012 Colorado State Forest Service burn sparked a wildfire near Denver that killed three people, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, suspended prescribed burnings.
Yet experts who study public lands say low-intensity, controlled fires are a crucial tool for reducing wildfire risk -- particularly as more people move to forested areas and climate change fuels hotter, drier summers. Controlled fires can quickly and inexpensively clear out large swaths of trees and undergrowth and create a better environment, over the long term, for native plants and animals.
"Prescribed fire is a critical tool, because it's the most effective way to reduce fuels to make people and communities safe," said Brett Wolk, assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. "It also is the only way to restore ecological processes in the forest," he said, such as removing debris on the surface and creating opportunities for new plants and trees to grow.
Nationwide, however, the cost of fighting wildfires has for years crowded out federal funding for other forest activities, including prescribed fire. Congress last year created a wildfire disaster fund that should help address the problem starting in 2020.
Although President Donald Trump has called for more fire mitigation work, he didn't propose substantially more funding for it in his latest budget.