Forest Service runs into obstacles while trying to suppress fewer fires

For years, federal land managers have aimed at letting wildfires burn to boost forest health — and save taxpayers some of the billions the government spends dousing nearly every blaze.

“We’re looking for opportunities to let fire play its natural role in the landscape,” regional U.S. Forest Service chief Rick Cables said this week.

But Colorado’s growing population and energy industry near forests, combined with surging numbers of wildfires, is making a let-it-burn approach increasingly difficult.

Twenty-seven wildfires have threatened the northern Front Range suburbs this month, nine times the 15-year March average of three.

Rather than try to let some wildfires burn to stimulate forests and grasslands, federal officials have moved into traditional suppression, mobilizing ground crews early and pushing to pre-position slurry bombers on runways to stop the flames.

Over the past year, federal land managers in Colorado let 30 remote wildfires run their course, agency data show. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 wildfires were suppressed in Colorado.

Nationwide, firefighters suppress about 99 percent of the more than 71,000 wildfires that break out each year, mostly in Western states.

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