Returning more of the San Juan National Forest to a healthy and resilient state will require more proactive thinning and managed fires. “When we have a resilient ecosystem, it reduces the potential for catastrophic wildfire, it reduces the risk for disease and for insect infestation,” said Chris Tipton, fire management officer with the San Juan National Forest.

In the early days of the 416 Fire, areas that were thinned or saw prescribed burns helped firefighters protect homes and make better decisions about how to fight it, he said. For example, near the entrance to the Rockwood subdivision where the forest was thinned, firefighters could see and fight small spot fires, he said. “It was a tremendous help for the first series of spot fires that we received over the line,” he said.

In the Hermosa Creek Special Management Area, more than 10,000 acres that burned in the mid-2000s also saw a less-intense blaze than other areas, Tipton said. Historically, the forest, particularly areas dominated by ponderosa pines, burned frequently and at a low intensity, he said. Before widespread fire suppression across the West, fires tended to move along the surface in more open forests, consuming grasses and shrubs rather than entire stands of trees.

In the San Juan National Forest northwest of Pagosa, fire and forest ecologist and Fort Lewis College professor Julie Korb, with the help of current and former students, is studying the long-term ecological effects of active forest management.

They have found that thinning and burning is the best way to restore the forest back to the way it was before fire suppression, logging and grazing in the West, she said. It is also the best way to reduce the severity of fires – by lowering the number of trees, increasing the height of the canopy and reducing the amount of ladder fuels and litter on the forest floor, Korb said.

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