Prescribed Burns Keep Forest Safe
MONTROSE – A light veil of smoke rose from the Uncompahgre Plateau this week, but the fire it came from was set deliberately. Fire is essential to the natural balance of the forest ecosystem, and U.S. Forest Service firefighters want the public to know that prescribed burning, like the one that took place on the Uncompahgre, not only reduces hazardous fuel – it actually improves the health of Ponderosa Pine habitat.
Despite Red Flag burn warnings, firefighters from Montrose and as far away as Bayfield conducted multiple prescribed burns this week in an area 15 miles southwest of Montrose located just inside the Ouray County border, off Dave Wood Road.
About 755 acres were outlined in the USFS Burn Plan designed to improve the health of Ponderosa Pine habitat and reduce ground and ladder fuels.
“We want to get fire back into that fire-adaptive ecosystem,” said USFS Burn Boss Thad Chavez, “to get that forest – or that stand of trees – back into balance.”
By doing so, he said, “we are mimicking what Mother Nature would have done.”
High fuel moisture along with the spring “green-up” has allowed for the burn to take place while the area is under a Red Flag warning on open burning.
Chavez said the agency works closely with National Weather Service fire forecasters in Grand Junction, and with on-site weather data, to determine how long the firefighters can operate within any given day.
Firefighters are updated every 30 minutes to determine progress and ensure safety.
This week’s burn began Monday morning with a test fire. After hours of igniting small stands of brush, Chavez and Burn Boss Trainee Cody Russell agreed to halt ignition for the day at 1:17 p.m., and to resume operations later this week.
Nearby neighbors voiced their concerns to Forest Service personnel, but were reassured the conditions were not dangerous, despite gusty winds.
Chavez said the winds helped the burn, by spreading the fire along the ground where dead pine needles, cones and other low-lying brush are consumed. Without the winds, the fires would stay in one place and likely fizzle out.
The protocols for such a burn are in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), congressional policy, which requires federal agencies to conduct environmental impact allaylis before altering or impacting public lands.
A burn plan is created using computer models of fire behavior in a prescribed area, risk-management assessments, and compliance plans with regulations such as the Environmental Protection Agencies’ Clean Air Act to monitor smoke.
The Forest Service did obtain a Smoke Permit, which identifies conditions for implementing the prescribed burn by the Colorado State Air Pollution Control Division.
“There are a lot of things that need to be in place before we can do a prescribed burn,” Chavez said, adding that burn plans can be 30-40 pages long. “We have to be really careful when we use prescribed fire to manage the land.”
Chavez said more than double the amount of resources of men and equipment were used to ensure that this week’s burn was safe and effective. Fires in the burn area, which were started in the morning, were all but extinguished by early afternoon.
By that time, about half of the 755 acres were already consumed; Chavez said the burn could be completed by Tuesday, with multiple days of monitoring to follow.
Residents can expect to see light smoke from the area as heavier fuels continue to smolder. This week’s fire is designed to act as a buffer before this fall, when the Forest Service plans a prescribed burn of nearly 1,800 acres in the Spring Creek Canyon area, which borders this week’s area.
For decades, the policy of the Forest Service has been to suppress any fire found in Ponderosa habitat. But that thinking has changed.
Chavez said Ponderosa habitats are the most “out-of-balance” compared to other habitats because fires have not been allowed to run their natural course.
“Over the years,” Chavez said, “suppression fires have put [Ponderosas] most-at-risk.
By using suppression fire, underlying vegetation that would fuel a fire is removed in order to prevent wildfires from moving higher into the crown of the tree.
Higher-elevations species such as Spruce have a natural fire cycle, which helps the tree reproduce.
“The more fire we can get, the more ecological restoration we can do, the more sustainable they will be,” Chavez said.
Like many western states, Colorado is in a severe drought. Chavez said burning in the spring prevents trees from becoming stressed during the summer and more susceptible to insect infestation.
The Forest Service says fire is last in its lineup of forest “health aids.” The first two are timber sales, and thinning trees by using chainsaws.
Recent federal reports suggest climate change is to blame for larger, more-destructive wildfires. Prolonged droughts produce drier conditions and fuel has prolonged fire seasons. The reports do not mention or contain any data suggesting certain fires were caused by climate change.
Since 1984, areas burned by the west’s largest wildfires — those of more than 1,000 acres — have increased by about 87,700 acres a year, according to an April study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Areas where fire has increased the most are areas where drought has been worsening and “that certainly points to climate being a major contributor,” said the study’s main author, Philip Dennison of the University of Utah.
The top five years in which the most acreage has been burned have all occurred in the last decade, according to federal records. From 2010-2013, about 6.4 million acres a year burned on average; in the 1980s, the average was 2.9 million acres a year.
“We are going to see increased fire activity all across the west as the climate warms,” Dennison said.
Chavez does not speculate whether climate change is to blame for the larger fires.
However, he points out that the East Fork Fire, sparked by lightning last June and located approximately 13 miles east-northeast of Ridgway and three miles east-southeast of Silver Jack Reservoir, was fueled by drier conditions.
Chavez said winter snowpack had melted off about two weeks earlier than normal, and that a lack of moisture contributed to the fire burning about 400 acres.
This spring the Colorado State Legislature received support from both Republicans and Democrats to increase state funding for wildfire resources including additional aircraft.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.