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A burning policy issue

Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily/Bret Hartman Firefighters oversee a controlled burnnear the Booth Creekin East Vail, one of the areas where naturally ignited fires can burn.
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Quote: “Like it or not, forests are meant to burn. People are starting to see fire as part of our forest and they’re learning to live with it.” Rocky Smith, Colorado WildWhen it does dry out and lightning ignites a wildfire on public land in Eagle County, fire crews may be less inclined to snuff it than in the past.That policy of letting some fires burn, under special circumstances, is known in the U.S. Forest Service as “fire for beneficial use.” The policy has been expanded under the new White River Forest Plan to include more of the 2.27 million-acre forest than earlier plans did. It’s designed to reintroduce fire into the fire-dependant forest ecosystems to bring them back into balance after nearly 100 years of aggressive fire suppression by humans. Fires actually help keep forests healthy by renewing the vegetation.But letting fires burn can be devilishly tricky. Any fire that’s allowed to continue must fit a narrow set of circumstances that include location, the proper weather, fuels and even computer-generated fire behavior models.”Most of what’s included is adjacent to or in wilderness areas,” said Cal Wettstein, Holy Cross and Eagle district ranger. “There’s a good possibility with a natural ignition that we’ll manage them.” In words, lightning.That’s government-speak for letting a fire burn under the watchful eye of specialized fire crews. The determination of whether to allow a wildfire to burn without active attempts at suppression has to be made within the first two hours after a fire is started because it becomes more difficult to stop once it becomes large, Wettstein said.

“In some places we’re going to let Mother Nature go to work for herself,” he said.Smoky, yes”If we do have fires here, we probably won’t see spectacular fires,” Wettstein said. “The lodgepole and spruce forests here are probably 40 to 50 years away from that. The fire will stay mostly on the ground.”When forests become overmature, as most of those in and around Eagle County will in another four decades or so, they “unravel,” or begin to die from natural phenomenon such as bugs and disease. That creates huge amounts of fuel that can create spectacular and damaging “stand replacement” fires that can actually slow regeneration of the forest because they’re hot enough to destroy the top layer of soil.The “let burn” policy is generally accepted by environmentalists such as Rocky Smith, forest watch director for Colorado Wild.”It makes sense to do that,” Smith said. “There are certain places and certain conditions that it doesn’t make sense to fight it. They’re not going to let a fire burn unless conditions are just right. It’s really a fire containment and control strategy.”Whether a fire is allowed to burn is entirely dependent on conditions and where the fire occurs. If it’s dry, hot and windy and the fire has the potential to destroy dwellings, crews will work to extinguish it. Pre-planned trigger points will guide decisions about whether to fight the fire or continue to watch it. Some fires, like the huge Yellowstone fires in 1988, can burn for months before winter snows extinguish them.If a fire is in a place where it will burn into a wilderness area, officials are far more likely to let the blaze go. One of the key components, Wettstein said, is having lightning start the fire.

Campfires, which start the majority of fires on Forest Service land, typically start near creeks in valleys and produce different fire behavior than do lightning strikes, which typically start ridgetop fires.One of the areas where a fire would be allowed to burn if conditions were right is near East Vail, where the Eagles Nest Wilderness is just a few hundred yards north and east of Interstate 70.Up to 87 percent of the forest can fall into the naturally burnable category, said Bob Leighty, fire management officer for the White River National Forest. That doesn’t mean all fires will be allowed to burn. On the contrary, the checklist used to determine a fire’s suitability for burning has safety and protection of human structures at the top of the list. There are other conditions that a fire must meet if it is going to be allowed to burn, Wettstein said. That includes weather conditions, availability of firefighters, type of fuel, wind and other factors, including aesthetics.”We’re not going to go out and purposefully ruin the viewshed,” Leighty said. “We’ve decided to have some buffer areas around the wilderness.”Question of whenBut don’t break out the hot dogs and marshmallows just yet. Natural fires occur on nature’s time table and only when a handful of burning conditions converge, Leighty said.”On a large portion of the forest, this is never going to occur in our lifetime,” Leighty said.A recent example of how the policy can look occurred in the Big Fish and Trappers Lake area 15 miles northwest of Dotsero.



Two summers ago, lightning started a fire in the Flat Tops Wilderness in the site of a spruce beetle epidemic from the 1950s that left thousands of dead and downed trees. The fires started in the wilderness near Big Fish Lake and burned toward Trapper’s Lake in a natural bowl bordered by a bare rock rim. Fire experts decided to let the fire burn. Two weeks and 23,000 acres later, it burned itself out as it came to the rock rim of the valley. In the process it did something to the forest there that needed to be done. Wettstein said.Aside from trying to bring forest ecosystems here into balance with naturally occurring fires – they typically burn every 200 or 300 years – the budget-strapped Forest Service is using nature to help manage the forest.Wettstein said the agency does not have the manpower or the money to artificially manage the land it oversees. If a naturally ignited fire occurs, it will be used as a tool to accomplish some of what needs to be done anyway.That includes reducing the fire danger in old, overgrown and insect-infested forests by letting a low-intensity fire consume the dead, downed and diseased trees from the forest. If the number of dead trees builds up, it could fuel a major, uncontrollable fire that will damage the soil itself. Because fires on public wildlands have been largely suppressed for the past 100 years, many of the national forests contain old trees that are unable to resist disease, insects and are more likely to burn than are vigorously growing younger trees.Either way we’re likely to see more fire than we have in the past, either as controlled burns set to rejuvenate overgrown or overmature forested areas, or as natural fires. “Like it or not, forests are meant to burn,” said Smith. “People are starting to see fire as part of our forest and they’re learning to live with it.”Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at cthompson@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555, ext. 450.


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