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"Impossible" is the New Normal

Krista and her Ponderosa Pine

In 2011, Krista Bonfantine was monitoring the Las Conchas forest fire. She texted a firefighter friend that it had burned 43,000 acres in its first 24 hours. His reply? She had to be wrong. “That’s impossible – you’re off one decimal.” She wasn’t.

We met Krista in her beautiful log home in the Sandias Mountains. The home dates back to the turn of the century, sits along the old summit road, and is shaded by a giant, crooked Ponderosa pine.

To hear her describe it, Krista fell into fire management. She studied fishery biology at Colorado State University, so it was natural for her to take a job with the US Forest Service in Steamboat Springs after graduating. Soon after starting, her supervisor told her she’d be starting a firefighter course. It was a surprise, but she “fell in love with fire” after two years, and has spent much of her career in fire management.

Krista specializes in watershed management and fire prevention. She integrates cutting edge forest management, GIS, climate science, and fire management techniques to develop Community Wildfire Protection Plans. The plans are as intricate as they are important.

And it’s a really interesting — not to mention important! — time to be monitoring fires in the west. Thanks to climate change, wildfires are increasingly common – and the season is getting longer. Since 2000, the Western states have seen an average of 250 large fires a year – up from 160 in the 1990’s. A warming climate is making all the indicators worse. In short, trees are dying at alarming rates from beetle kill, to starvation, to cavitation - the forming of bubbles inside of certain trees. Dehydration is especially measurable. A fire management colleague told Krista, “if you told me ten years ago that I could measure a living tree with this little moisture, I’d say you were lying.”

Despite this new reality, Krista is underutilized. In part, the rural communities she serves don’t think that climate change is happening – which means that there isn’t much interest in Community Wildfire Protection Plans. In part, too many agencies - federal on down to local - are fire borrowing, meaning they’re spending so much money fighting fires, they can’t afford fire prevention.

Her frustration was palpable. I asked her what it would take for communities to demand sufficient Community Wildfire Protection Plans, and ones that account for climate change. Searching for an answer, she said, “fire is a really motivating factor.” I can’t help but wonder, how much of the West needs to burn before communities take action?

Written by Peter Sargent

Photography by Virginia Sargent


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