To prevent a catastrophic wildfire in Southwest Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service intends to – literally – fight fire with fire.
“For the first 100 years of the Forest Service, we’ve had a very aggressive fire-suppression philosophy,” said Matt Janowiak, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Columbine District, which manages nearly 700,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest.
“As a result, we wound up with a lot of hazardous fuel buildup. Now, we’re trying to rebalance things out in the forest and let fire play its natural role in the ecosystem.”
This spring, the U.S. Forest Service will finalize a plan two years in the making that seeks to completely revamp the way forest managers prevent wildfires, keying in on 80,000 acres between Vallecito Reservoir and the Piedra River.
“In the past, there’s been a lot of small projects (for fire reduction), but this will cover a large landscape,” said Hon Schlapfer, assistant fire management officer-fuels for the Forest Service. “It may be the biggest the San Juan has ever pushed out.”
The plan will focus on reintroducing fire – whether prescribed or naturally ignited – in time frames that reflect natural cycles, rather than putting out every burn as has been the longstanding, and perhaps counterproductive, practice.
“We’ve been suppressing fires for so long that it’s led to dangerous fuel loading, so that when we get fires on the wrong day, it can turn catastrophic,” Schlapfer said. “We need to relearn how to use good fires as a resource.”
Before Europeans arrived in the West, fire played a natural role on the landscape.
In the ponderosa pine forests of Southwest Colorado, forest managers say low-intensity fires swept through at least every three to five years. And Native Americans who inhabited the region intentionally set fires for a variety of reasons.
As a result, there were actually fewer major, destructive fires because the frequency of these burns would clear out the highly combustive understory (oaks, grasses) of forests that serve as fuel for massive wildfires.
Western settlers interrupted this natural fire regime. Stephen J. Pyne, one of America’s foremost experts on fire history, said Europeans demonized fire as a threat to commodities such as livestock grazing and commercial logging.
“The American West had plenty of fires, and there was nothing unusual about that,” Pyne said. “With settlement, that was shattered.”
By suppressing fires, forest-floor vegetation is allowed to build up and become overly dense. Then, when fires do occur, they burn at high-intensity and their flames reach the top of the tree canopy.
The “no fire” mandate was further enforced by the U.S. Forest Service, which for nearly 100 years has had a strict mandate of putting out every burn. But in the past few years, there’s been an attempt to change that mindset.
Janowiak said it has been a gradual change in philosophy to reach this point in forest and fire management.
Part of the trouble has been internal inertia. Janowiak said many old-school firefighters who were used to putting fires out as quickly and effectively as possible were reluctant to change and are now retiring.
“Now, we have a fresh crop of firefighters with a very different mentality, and they recognize the need for fire and the benefits of it.”
Public perception that fires are bad has also been key to stalling that progress. As a result, the Forest Service has embarked on an extensive outreach program, along with partners such as FireWise of Southwest Colorado, to educate residents.
“For the most part, the communities I work with are very enthusiastic about the use of fire and managing fire instead of just the suppression approach,” said Charlie Landsman, La Plata County coordinator for FireWise. “People are much more understanding and open to it.”
The “Vallecito-Piedra Integrated Vegetation Management Project” seeks to implement these practices in an attempt to effectively manage a vast landscape that’s highly used by ranchers and recreationists and is located near the heavily traveled U.S. Highway 160 corridor.
For the past two years, the Forest Service has taken input from a host of interests, including ranchers, recreationists and archaeologists, to take into account these many uses of the land. In the end, Schlapfer said the process was so effective that a public comment period drew practically no objections.
The plan, essentially, predetermines where forest managers don’t want to see fire, which would call for an all-out fight and where prescribed burns, as well as naturally ignited fires, may benefit the forest.
“This is the first project we’ve planned for managed fire,” Schlapfer said. “We’ve really picked apart this landscape and figured out what needs to stay and how fire can play a beneficial role without having to do it on the fly.”
Schlapfer said if the conditions are right this fall, the Forest Service will conduct prescribed burns in areas of Saul’s Creek and Yellow Jacket.
Other measures in the plan include clearing roads, building hand lines, holding salvage timber sales and removing beetle kill stands. Forest managers hope the process will also help reduce the effects of invasive beetle kill.
With more catastrophic wildfires around the West, good fires may be the answer. In 2017 for instance, there were 66,131 wildfires that burned 9.8 million acres across the country, according to federal statistics.
And the resources to fight these fires are dwindling. Planned fires, on the other hand, are relatively cheap and effective.
“It’s a changing mindset,” he said. “I think you’ll see it more and more over the West because it needs to happen. Planned fire is way less expensive than unplanned fire, and there’s definitely a benefit to the forest when done right.”