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Taming the forest fires of the future ― today

Denver Water and partners are making landscape-scale changes that may ease the threat of wildfires and protect precious water supplies.

In the race to protect homes and communities ― and water supplies ― from the intensifying threat of wildfire, Front Range organizations spent urgent years hustling to thin dense and overgrown forests in scattered patches.

Cutting trees and clearing brush ideally would ease the risk of catastrophic fire by reducing what could burn and slowing a fire’s spread in a less crowded forest.

In September 2019, firefighters quickly contained the Payne Gulch fire in Pike National Forest. Work done in 2017 to reduce the density of the trees in the area, from 256 to 44 trees per acre, helped make it more difficult for the 2019 fire to spread rapidly. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service.

And that was true. But the approach, while well-meaning and understandable, also was disorganized and scattershot.

“Organizations were frantically out there working on their own,” explained Madelene McDonald, a watershed scientist at Denver Water focused on protecting water supplies from wildfire. “These were shotgun treatments, or what is sometimes called ‘random acts of restoration.’ It was 500 acres here, then 300 acres there.”

Things are changing ― for the better. And Denver Water is at the forefront.

Denver Water scientist earns rare slot on Congressional wildfire commission.

With greater coordination, more resources and a more strategic approach, agencies and communities are beginning to create larger, more connected swaths of thinned-out forests. 

Experts believe these larger swaths can better prevent the kind of massive damage to waterways, reservoirs — and the forests themselves — that have marked the last quarter-century of epic wildfire in Colorado.

“We are recognizing that we can’t be working independently. We need to be collaborating and doing strategic cross-boundary planning. We can get far more done together,” McDonald said. “The risk is still there, but we are moving the needle.”

Focus on the Pike National Forest

One of the clearest examples of this strategic shift can be found in the South Platte Ranger District, in a region near Bailey located south and west of Denver.

Here, partnerships involving the U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water, the Colorado State Forest Service and other state and local organizations are driving landscape-scale work that will provide greater protection for forests and for Denver Water’s supplies in an era of a warming climate and hotter, larger, more damaging forest fires.

A view of the trees, now stacked as logs, that were thinned as part of the Jerome Miller/Miller Gulch Project to reduce wildfire risk and protect the North Fork of the South Platte River, a key supply for Denver Water. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Much of the work is occurring under the banner of the Jerome Miller/Miller Gulch Project, an effort focused on an area of the Pike National Forest that lies between the North Fork and the South Platte rivers and upstream from where the two waterways merge near Strontia Springs Reservoir, a temporary pool for 80% of Denver Water’s supply.

The project is expanding a series of forest treatments in the region that collectively are designed to limit future fires ability to spread quickly and grow in intensity. That, in turn, should lessen wildfire impacts to the North Fork of the South Platte, a stretch that conveys critical supplies of water flowing from Dillon Reservoir to the metro area.

Parts of this general region in the South Platte River watershed were the epicenter of two major fires in 1996 and 2002 that together burned more than 150,000 acres, devastated landscapes and left reservoirs clogged with thousands of tons of sediment that poured from the scorched, treeless landscape left by the fires. 

Those two fires, named the Buffalo Creek and Hayman, set Denver Water and other land management agencies on the course they are on today ― to collaborate on the ground to ease the risk of future catastrophic fires.

Examples of success 

Already, the partnership’s work has resulted in tangible success stories.

In 2019, a fire broke out in an area called Payne Gulch in the Pike National Forest. As part of a series of forest management projects in the region, this area had been thinned in 2017.

“The fire could have blown up to be a pretty catastrophic fire, but wildland firefighters were able to access and suppress the fire effectively because of the thinning,” McDonald said. “That’s a shining example of where we’ve seen this work pay off. The connectivity between treated areas is increasing and attracting more and more work in that area.”

This photo shows the result of work to reduce forest density in the Jerome Miller/Miller Gulch Project on U.S. Forest Service land. Photo credit: Denver Water.

In perhaps the highest profile example, the partnership’s work to develop fuel breaks protected about 1,400 homes and as much as $1 billion in value in Silverthorne during the Buffalo Fire in Summit County in 2018. The work has also protected Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest water storage facility.

Success has many fathers (as the saying goes), but there’s little question that Denver Water’s From Forests to Faucets partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Forest Restoration Institute is a key part of the story driving greater investment and partnerships to get ahead of big fires in Colorado.

In 2020, the Williams Fork fire hit one source of Denver Water supply.

All told, partners have committed more than $96 million to the From Forests to Faucets partnership, from its inception in 2010 through work planned into 2027.

In total, Denver Water and partners have treated more than 120,000 acres of forested land since 2010, with nearly two-thirds of that within the South Platte Basin. Local organizations involved in the South Platte Basin work include Jefferson County Open Space, Jefferson Conservation District, Aurora Water and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. 

Feds point to Colorado

Federal officials gathered Feb. 9 for a news conference in Broomfield to highlight new congressional funding for forest work and called such partnerships in Colorado “a template for the nation.”

At that event, Homer Wilkes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment, announced $37 million in federal money for priority landscapes along the Front Range in 2023, including areas in the South Platte watershed.

Last year, the region attracted $18 million in federal dollars. All of that money comes on top of recent funding at the state level of more than $80 million. 

“Investing proactively in protecting forests and watersheds is a smart business decision. You can see our partners increasingly understand that as state and federal resources pour in to help reduce the impacts of, and potential for, big fires,” said Christina Burri, who has for years developed and strengthened Denver Water’s interagency collaboration.

Burri noted that with the new flow of state and federal money, Denver Water is seeing up to a tenfold return on the utility’s investment into From Forests to Faucets.

“It is amazing to see,” she said.

Outgoing Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead said the big rise in funding to protect water supplies and communities is a tribute to Denver Water’s years of focus on the issue.

“It is just one more example of how a utility can achieve results by leaning into collaboration and partnerships, and by leading in innovation,” Lochhead said. 

In August of 2022, Denver Water commissioners joined the utility’s watershed scientists to visit the area being treated as part of the Jerome Miller/Miller Gulch Project. Left to right: Alison Witheridge, Christina Burri, Commissioner Craig Jones, Commissioner Dominique Gómez, Madelene McDonald, Commissioner Tyrone Gant. Photo credit: Denver Water.