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Study: Colorado forests are not recovering post-fire like they used to

Colorado's forests we know and love could be far fewer in the future. It's not because we will be getting more fires but bigger fires.

DENVER — Wildfires happen. They always have, they always will. We've watched as massive wildfires have devoured forests, and, historically, we've also seen those forests recover and even eventually grow back. 

"Fire is a perfectly normal thing in Colorado," said Brain Buma, Senior Climate Scientist at the University of Colorado Denver. "It's been here for tens of thousands of years, and it will be... our forests are quite adapted to those fires."

But Mother Nature's job is getting harder.

"The fires that we're getting now are resulting in conditions that the forest just can't handle," Buma said.

Buma has been tracking this disturbing change.

"Forests aren't recovering from fires the way they used to," Buma said.

That's because the fires now are too big and burn too hot. The result: The seeds needed to regrow the forests are often destroyed.

"If you have even one really dry hot year, after a fire - in the first five years after a fire - usually means very little regeneration. The seedlings die, they're pretty sensitive," Buma explained.

In his research, Buma found that in historical climates more than 95 percent of the landscape would recover post-wildfire. However, now and going forward, that percentage will be 75 percent or less.

"The less trees we have, the more grass we have, the less carbon that we're storing," Buma said.

Buma stressed the importance of reducing the size and intensity of wildfires as a key factor in keeping our forests. One way to do that is to reduce fuels through prescribed burns.

Fewer fuels, the less intense the fire.

Because the one thing we do know is that fires will burn. And as our climate warms, and dries, humans will need to do what they can to keep them smaller.

"People need to get more comfortable with fire in their landscape whether we do it or Mother Nature does it or both."

Buma pointed out that prescribed burns are just one solution, and they won't work in every case. 

Cutting emissions to help slow any kind of climate change will be key in reducing the intensity of fires.

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