Booth Creek burn goes off as expected
About seven of 22 acres on a steep hillside near Booth Creek in East Vail were purposefully burned Monday by a 24-person fire crew.
Monday, the problem wasn’t slowing the spread of the fire – it was getting it to burn. The greening vegetation on the steep hillside made it hard to keep the fire burning. The burn objectives called for a “low intensity burn” that would consume 40 percent of the burnable material – a target that fire officials said was being met.
The beneficiaries will be bighorn sheep, deer and elk which depend on the forage there during winter. Another beneficiary will be the and nearby neighborhoods, which, once the burn is completed, will have a firebreak upwind of them that will guard against future wildfires.
Burning the hillside will rejuvenate the forage for the big game by releasing nutrients stored in the woody shrubs and sage that cover the hillside. Those nutrients stimulate new growth.
As the fire genie was let out of the bottle Monday by yellow Nomex-shirted crews using flaming drip torches to spread the flames, Vail Fire Chief John Gulick admitted that starting the fire made him a bit nervous. Typically once fires begin, they can at times, become difficult to control if the weather doesn’t cooperate. The burn had been scheduled for last week, but wet weather and gusty winds delayed it until Monday.
“I’m nervous but confident because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with that are from other agencies,” he said. Fire agencies from across the county and from the Interagency Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management Fire Office participated.
The high-profile burn, that was visible from I 70, was less than a half mile from the Vail Mountain School and residential dwellings, and neighbors, worried about a repeat of the disastrous fire that scorched 100,000 acres and burned nearly 200 homes near Los Alamos, N.M. in 2000, expressed concern about a fire getting out of hand and spreading.
But fire spreading too quickly wasn’t a problem Monday. Crews had cut a fire line, prior to the burn and then began burning from the top down on the steep hillside so only a small portion of the hill would burn at a time. They also “black lined” the fire, or burned around the perimeter first so any fire driven by wind would hit the patches that were already burned depriving it of fuel. A cliff band on the top of the hill formed a natural firebreak, Gulick said, and snow forms a natural firebreak above the cliffs. On top of that two fire engines were parked in neighborhoods at either end of the area being burned.
Crews began burning the hillside from the top down, making for smaller, easier-to-control flames. Mostly it the y crews with the drip torches keeping the flame going, while others were on hand if case they were needed.
“It’s a lot of standing and watching,” Gulick said. “But that’s what’s required.”
The fire also attracted the attention of Stan Zemler, Vail’s town manager, and other members of the town staff, who stopped by to watch the progress of the burn.
Before starting the fire, the proper conditions -the fuel moisture, humidity and wind from the southwest at 10 miles per-our or less- had to exist. As the afternoon progressed, however, the conditions for a controlled burn deteriorated.
Wind did gust to more than 15 miles per-hour during the burn, but that actually helped firefighters, Gulick said because it helped to spread the fire on the greening hillside.
Fire planners had waited for the proper conditions so smoke from the fire didn’t blow downhill onto I 70, obscuring visibility for drivers. For the most part the smoke blew northeast – away from homes and the highway. The temperature on site was 59 degrees and the humidity was 17 percent while the wind was 6 to 15 miles per-hour as the first fire hit the hillside.
The burn has been planned since 1998 when U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologists told the Vail town Council that the big game herds needed better winter habitat. That, and the need to remove burnable fuel on the hillside, kept the plan alive.
The fire was delayed several years as neighborhood concerns were addressed and less than ideal weather conditions prevented the burn from occurring until this year.
Crews stopped the burn in mid-afternoon Monday as gusty winds preceding showers and thunderstorms kicked up, and because they completed the burn amounts they had planned to accomplish. Crews will watch the smoldering hillside’s hot spots until evening, when cooling temperatures and increasing humidity and possible rain is expected to snuff whatever’s burning.
Gulick said the remainder of the hillside, approximately 14 acres, will be burned later this week or when conditions allow. The window of opportunity for burning is growing shorter because the new moisture will stimulate new growth, making it nearly impossible to burn more of the hillside.
It’s the first controlled burn done by the town, Gulick said. He’s anticipating there will be more as the move to help fireproof neighborhoods continues.
Fire this year is expected to be a problem because snow moisture is at 65 percent of average, presaging a possible summer drought.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.