RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Colorado, fire crews are struggling to get the upper hand on the massive High Park wildfire. That fire has destroyed more homes and property than any other in Colorado's history. Federal fire managers are warning of a long, expensive summer due to the drought in the Southwest. And as Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports, earlier forest management strategies could be partly to blame.
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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The smoky skies over the college town of Fort Collins looked like a crowded freeway of choppers and air tankers when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently stopped by the fire's incident command post.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: So it sounds like you've got a good handle on what's going on.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, we hope. Although, you know, with fires, you never know.
SIEGLER: Vilsack says the intensity of the fires in Colorado and New Mexico underscore why more focus needs to be on wildfire mitigation, like creating buffers between the woods and homes.
VILSACK: So that over time, we can reduce the risk of these large, intensive fires. For too many years, we didn't do that.
SIEGLER: For more than a century, to be precise, the U.S. Forest Service that Vilsack today oversees viewed every fire - even the natural ones - as a threat to future timber sales.
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SIEGLER: So the federal government invented Smoky the Bear...
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MARK FINNEY: The chief problem we're seeing here in many of these forests in the Southwest now is that there's been an absence of fire.
SIEGLER: Research forester Mark Finney is with the Missoula Fire Lab in Montana, where federal scientists study wildfire behavior. He says most national forests today are full of dense, aging stands of trees, and in Colorado's case, many of them are already dead from disease. Finney says natural, smaller fires should have been allowed to burn to clear out the forests.
FINNEY: The reason that our modern wildfires now are so severe and cause so much damage to watersheds, to developed infrastructure such as housing, is because of the lack of fire.
SIEGLER: When Smoky first came on the scene in the 1940s, fewer people lived between St. Louis and San Francisco. Now places like the Colorado foothills where the High Park fire is burning are full of roads and power lines, homes and vacation cabins. The federal government has made some headway in recent years thinning the forests. But that's also brought unintended consequences, says Professor Doug Rideout. He teaches forest economics at Colorado State University.
DOUG RIDEOUT: As we make this a more desirable place to live and to be, what happens is we see more and more development and more highly valued development.
SIEGLER: Which means more taxpayer money is then spent to save homes and businesses when flames are threatening. Some towns and counties have tried to change the law so that those living in these forests shoulder more of the responsibility. But that's still a hard sell in the libertarian, rural West.
TOM TIDWELL: I don't think we're going to get out of this cycle, but there are some things that we can do.
SIEGLER: Back at the High Park fire's incident command post, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says the country needs to be willing to do more before fires start.
TIDWELL: And when I say that, I mean to be able to get in there and do the thinning, the timber harvests, especially around the homes, to be able to reduce the amount of trees that are on the landscape.
SIEGLER: For now, Tidwell says firefighters at least should have the resources they need to swiftly move from one part of the country to the other to respond to major fires.
For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler, in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.