Wilderness wildﬁres equal quick decisions
Ryan Summerlin July 1, 2012
EAGLE, Colorado – Firefighters would do what’s needed if wildfire hit the wilderness, but what’s necessary isn’t etched in stone.
“It depends on what’s at risk, whether the fire is natural or human caused, where it is and what the conditions are like,” said Jon Morrissey, district ranger with the Pike San Isabel National Forest in Leadville, where the 420-acre Treasure Fire is now 100 percent contained.
It all comes down to mechanized and motorized uses in the wilderness, which are banned under the Wilderness Act. But they could use mechanized machines if they had to.
For example, the lift at the top of Beaver Creek is next to the wilderness and might get quicker action than remote areas, Morrissey said.
They could put firefighters in a wilderness fire with hand tools: shovels, pulaskis, axes and those sort of things.
They need permission from up the corporate ladder to crank up bulldozers and chainsaws, though. Engines aren’t allowed in wilderness areas, unless someone high up that ladder allows them.
Dave Neely, Eagle-Holy Cross District ranger, pulled his worn copy of the Wilderness Act from his pocket and thumbed to Section 4C. By the look of the book, he’s been there before and probably earlier that day.
Section 4C outlines “Prohibition of Certain Uses” – it tells you what you cannot do.
The list is long, yet gloriously vague. You can’t open a commercial enterprise of any sort, you can’t build roads, land aircraft or lots of other stuff.
But then the Wilderness Act says, “Except when necessary to meet the health and safety of the area and persons in that area.”
“It gives you a legislative starting point for making decisions about an area,” Neely said.
In other words, they can do what they need to do, but they can’t crank up the D9 Caterpillar and take a drive through Bambi Land just because they feel like it.
The Act is a paradox, Neely explained, calling for “excellent opportunities for solitude … and excellent opportunities for recreation.”
The fires around Colorado Springs have surrounded the Cache la Poudre wilderness area.
The Treasure Creek fire is burning near Mosquito Peak outside Leadville, on the west side of the Mosquito Range.
The blaze appears to be human-triggered, Morrissey said. It’s being contained at about 320 acres by a crew of 125 firefighters.
At 12,300 feet above sea level, the Treasure Creek fire is the highest wildfire, at least right now. It’s burning up to treeline with moss and tundra on another side, so it’s not much of a threat to lives and property.
They can use helicopters and planes dropping water and fire retardant, but they can’t land in the wilderness, Morrissey said.
A municipal watershed is likely to get quick action and lots of help. Private property in the middle of a wilderness area might get a nod more quickly than a remote wilderness area.
There are the conditions to consider. The National Interagency Fire Center reported 19 active large fires covering nearly 500,000 acres across the country.
“Let’s say the fire is human caused and has some blown-down timber areas or a big pocket of beetle kill. That would be handled differently,” Morrissey said.
With the fire danger we’re seeing across Colorado, everything is being taken seriously, Morrissey said.
Last year if a lightning strike and a couple of trees were burning, they’d let them burn, Morrissey said.
Everything was green and moist, as you might recall. This year is different.
“This year, when fuel is so abundant, we’d approach it differently,” Neely said. “My inclination is that we would use the full range of fire-suppression tools at our disposal. Bulldozers? Possibly, if they’re necessary. Probably chainsaws.”
If a fire is somewhere it could spill out into populated areas, it’s treated differently, Neely said.
Decisions must be made, but they’re made at the speed of the fire, not at the glacial pace of government.
“It runs up the chain of command pretty quickly,” Neely said.
Historically, fires that reach upper-mountain elevations and encounter rocky terrain with little to burn don’t creep up and over ridges.
Locally, the Holy Cross and Eagle’s Nest wilderness areas are high-elevation rock and alpine terrain. There’s not a lot of fuel, Neely said.
“If we got a lightning strike in Fall Creek or Pitkin, we’d probably be more aggressive about it or someplace like East Vail or Red Cliff,” Neely said.
“It’s why we have professional fire-management staff and wilderness-management personnel.”
By the way, wilderness doesn’t really need to be managed, but people often do, Neely said.
“That’s the idea about wilderness, letting nature do when it does,” Neely said.
Four federal agencies deal with public lands: the U.S. Forest Service, the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
They have slightly different ideas.
“We tend not to use chainsaws in the wilderness,” said the Forest Service’s Neely. “The Park Service does for things like trail clearing.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.