Ponderosa pine forests that predominate in much of the West were, in their natural condition, well adapted to fire. Frequent, low-intensity fires kept Ponderosa stands thinned out, with relatively few trees per acre and a minimum of underbrush. Many accounts by early settlers in the West described these forests as park-like, with trees far enough apart to allow easy passage of wagons. With thick bark, these trees could then survive most fires. But today throughout the West, Ponderosa pine forests are well outside their natural condition, in large part because for most of the 20th century fires were aggressively fought nearly everywhere, excluding the kind of low-intensity cleansing fires that kept the forests healthy. As a result, Ponderosa stands are overcrowded, creating ripe conditions for the kind of catastrophic crown fires that these magnificent trees cannot survive and that we have experienced in recent years in Colorado.
Proper management of Ponderosa pine stands can help mimic their natural condition and make our neighborhoods safer and more resistant to big fires.