Plans for prescribed burns – intentionally set fires on the landscape aimed at reducing the risk of larger, more devastating wildfires – have been temporarily put on hold this fall as wildfires rage across the country.
Every year, the U.S. Forest Service’s three ranger districts across the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado – Dolores, Columbine (Bayfield and Durango) and Pagosa Springs – put together a list of burns they would like to conduct.
On average, these three districts ignite about six to 10 prescribed burns, said Richard Bustamante, San Juan National Forest fire manager.
This fall, the Forest Service had planned to conduct prescribed burns on about 12,000 acres in the Saul’s Creek and Yellow Jacket area, east of Bayfield.
But wildfires across the U.S. have strained firefighting resources, making it too dangerous to set a prescribed burn should it escape and go out of control.
“Prescribed fires are falling on the back burner right now,” Bustamante said.
The Forest Service’s wildfire managers look at a variety of parameters to determine if it is the right time to set a prescribed burn, like how dry are dead fuels on the forest floor, as well as current and extended weather conditions.
But one major factor is if firefighting resources are available should the fire get out of control.
With 110 active large fires burning nearly 1.8 million acres, mostly in the western United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, those resources aren’t available.
The National Multi-Agency Coordination Group establishes “Preparedness Levels” on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest level, for whether firefighting resources are available to respond to new incidents.
Right now, that level is at 5. During the 416 Fire, for perspective, the preparedness level was a 2.
“If you’re going to have a large wildfire, it’s best to do it when you’re the only show in town because you have all these firefighters available to come and help,” Bustamante said.
“But all these places – California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah – are experiencing large fires right now, so competition for resources is really high.”
Holding prescribed burns in Southwest Colorado isn’t completely off the table this year, Bustamante said. If national fires die down and weather conditions are right, the Forest Service could go ahead with its plans.
Wildfire officials also consider a community’s fatigue after dealing with major wildfires, as is the case in Southwest Colorado. But, if conditions are right, it must take advantage of setting prescribed burns in an attempt to prevent future devastating wildfires.
“In fact, years like this get people’s attention because they don’t want a devastating wildfire again,” Bustamante said. “We have a lot of community support because fires under our terms are better for the future of forest health.”
For most of the Forest Service’s 100 years, the agency operated on an extremely aggressive mandate to put out every fire that broke out on the natural landscape to protect land for grazing and logging, among other uses.
But the agency is going through a sea change when it comes to managing fire.
Suppressing every fire outbreak has been counterproductive because it has allowed vegetation to build up, so that when fires do occur, they burn at such a high intensity, many times plant life can’t regenerate.
Wildlife managers are now trying to create natural fire patterns, where low-intensity fires sweep through every three to five years or so, through prescribed burns.
“All fire isn’t bad,” Bustamante said.
Officials with the Forest Service have been identifying areas where it is a good idea to let naturally started fires burn, and areas where they should immediately be put out.
“This is the first project we’ve planned for managed fire,” Hon Schlapfer, an assistant fire management officer, said in a previous interview. “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.”