In the late 1990s, Charlie Cammer moved with his wife to Badger Meadows, a subdivision with large lots in North Routt County.
They wanted to live in the forest, where you get that "cabin in the woods" sort of feel, Cammer said.
Last summer, Cammer's home was tucked up in forest so dense, he couldn't see it from the road. Now he can.
During the past few years, Cammer has watched beetles eat through most of the pine trees on his 8 acres of forest, turning them into a red scar on his land that will become fuel for fires.
Cammer recently removed more than 100 dead or beetle-infested trees from his property.
In Badger Meadows, mountain pine beetle populations have exploded with recent drought. The insects, which burrow into lodgepole pine trees and then kill them, have been moving "faster and faster" through the trees, Cammer said. That same scenario is playing out, or expected to start, in most forests across the county.
Driving through the subdivision, tall, dead pine trees line the road. Some are just starting to fade, with needles mixed in yellow, green and red. Others are bright red.
"A couple of years ago, nobody thought it would be a big deal," Cammer said. "It's one of those things. You don't think it's going to happen to you."
For several years, Cammer has sprayed 40 trees that are important to him to save, trying to keep the beetles out. Now, neighbors are taking similar steps to deal with the same problem. Still, all of the mature lodgepole pine trees in the subdivision could be dead in a few years.
Across Routt County, much of the forest is old.
That, combined with recent drought, means trees that are weaker and more susceptible to disease, insects, and fires.
In the past, the scenario could have played out with large areas of beetle-killed trees followed by widespread fires. But now, land managers, government officials, and individuals say that's not acceptable.
Andy Cadenhead, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said in some areas of public land that are zoned wilderness, letting the beetles and fires come through "is just perfect."
But near neighborhoods and developments, ranches and the Steamboat Ski Area, letting beetles and fires go loose "is not OK," for safety, visual, recreational and economic reasons.
A better scenario would be a forest of trees that are all different ages. For instance, one-third young and new trees, one-third middle-aged trees, and one-third mature trees. Under that scenario, it would be less likely that the entire forest would die or burn all at once, Cadenhead said.
But that's not the case, so people across the county are taking steps to protect their homes from fires and save valuable trees from beetles.
Terry Wattles, district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, works with private landowners who want to protect their trees from beetles.
He gets one or two beetle calls a day during the summer, but most people don't take action until they see the beetles' work.
The first step to fighting beetles, he said, is to keep a stand of trees as healthy as possible, with trees of different ages that are not too dense. Once beetles have a toehold in an area, the only way to save trees is to spray them each year, which can get expensive.
Individuals can try to kill the insects once they infest a tree, to prevent those bugs from killing other trees. There are methods of burning, peeling and burying infected logs, as well as covering them with plastic and letting the bugs bake, Wattles said.
Many of those efforts are time-intensive, and in a neighborhood where the person across the street often isn't doing anything, they are not that effective.
"Usually that causes a lot of heartburn between neighbors," Wattles said.
Cammer has sprayed trees and thinned his forest as well, quickly cutting each infected tree and taking steps to kill the beetles inside.
Still, it's difficult to see pine tree after pine tree die, Cammer said.
"It's probably a gradual thing you have to come to terms with," he said. "You have to realize you really can't fight nature."
Efforts on a larger scale
The U.S. Forest Service manages some of the largest areas of land, and so organizes some of the largest beetle efforts. The work began mostly in 1997, after a freak windstorm flattened acres and acres of trees, creating perfect habitat for spruce beetles to breed.
With recent droughts paving the way for mountain pine beetles, foresters are seeing serious beetle epidemics across the county that could affect huge areas of forest.
The strategy never has been to stop the beetles because that would be impossible, Cadenhead said.
Rather, officials are working to save the forests' most valuable trees, including those in campgrounds, forestland adjacent to private developments and the Steamboat Ski Area.
Efforts include spraying certain trees, cutting and peeling the bark from infected trees so the beetles don't spread, thinning some areas so trees stay healthier, and using chemicals to attract or repel beetles.
At the ski area, those efforts affect 3,000 acres of forested land where spruce and mountain pine beetles are a threat. Work on all of the campgrounds affects more than 1,000 acres of forest.
And preventative thinning, which decreases a stand's susceptibility to beetles, is taking place on about 5,000 acres over the course of a few years, mostly in North Routt County.
Preventing large fires
Similar to beetles, fires have a natural role in the ecosystem. But in many cases, it's not feasible simply to let large areas burn, said Mark Cahur, fuels specialist for the Routt National Forest.
With growing populations and other uses of the forest, "It's all coming to a point where we really need to address (fire risk) in a much larger way," Cahur said.
For the U.S. Forest Service, fire management plans focus on reducing fuels, he said.
The Dry Lake Fuels Reduction Project, for example, focuses on the forests' interface with Steamboat Springs. That project involves prescribed burns as well as cutting and removing oak and sage brush that should burn every few decades but has not because of development. It should be finished this summer.
The Forest Service is considering a second stage of the project, which could be called the Steamboat Front. That could mesh with recent efforts on the part of the city of Steamboat Springs to encourage defensible space around homes and other protections, Cahur said.
Residents soon will get a first look at a new project called the Big Creek Ridge Prescribed Fire Partnership that proposes burning 2,500 acres of land along Routt County Road 129. That would result in better forage for elk and other animals, as well as safety from large fires, Cahur said.
"(We) can let forests do what they want, but with that comes beetle infestations, comes large fires, comes larger decadent forests, and we do need to provide some management," Cahur said.
A key to dealing with wildfire at an individual level is protecting homes. That means creating defensible space around the house, or an area that is clear of most vegetation and so acts as a barrier to fire, district forester Wattles said.
Defensible space can begin before a house is even built, with homeowners choosing fire-resistant materials, and placing their home in an area that is less prone to fire.
For owners of existing homes, it might mean getting rid of wood shingles or other highly flammable materials, and making sure roads accessing the house are fire-truck friendly.
At its least expensive, creating defensible involves cutting back vegetation, Wattles said. In the first 15 feet surrounding a house, there should be nothing except vegetation that is not very flammable, such as bluegrass or tulip beds, he said.
In the next 15 to 100 feet, trees should have at least 10 feet between their largest branches, and shrubs should spaced by a distance three times their height.
That doesn't mean clear cutting, he said. In fact, many people who are hesitant about making a defensible space then enjoy the open, park-like feel it creates.
When Stagecoach resident Ken DePaul watched a wildfire burn near his home two years ago, he saw his back yard in a different light. Along with the pretty trees and shrubs, and the wild feel the land had, he saw dense fuel that could bring a fire right to his porch. When the Oak Creek fire chief told him that if a fire came through, his home could not be defended, he knew he had to do something.
DePaul started some neighborhood efforts in Stagecoach, and when the Northwest Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club began organizing a defensible space project, DePaul leapt at the chance to get involved.
Last month, the Sierra Club, along with volunteers, defensible space contractors and the U.S. Forest Service, cleared space around five Stagecoach homes, including DePaul's.
"I go to bed sleeping a lot easier, and I'm very grateful to them," DePaul said.
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