Taking advantage of nature’s bounty, the San Juan National Forest anticipates ramping up efforts to mitigate wildfire danger by increasing prescribed burns through fall.
The national forest plans to burn at least 15,000 acres this season, and prescribed burns could reach 22,000 acres this year given the proper conditions. So far, conditions look ideal, said Brad Pietruszka, fuels programs manager for the San Juan National Forest.
About 6,000 acres in the Sauls Creek area were set aside for prescribed burns last year, when dry and dangerous conditions were ideal for out-of-control wildfires, such as the 416, Burro and Plateau fires.
“If we get to where we want to be with prescribed burns,” Pietruszka said, “we’ll be prepared for a dry year like 2018. We can bring in people and be effective if we have a fire. We’ll actually have a chance of doing something about the fire.”
The idea behind the prescribed burns, Pietruszka said, is to create pockets of the forest that would burn more slowly and give firefighters the chance to control a wildfire should one break out. Prescribed fires also mitigate the threat of a crown fire, in which flames leap from one treetop to another.
The 2019 prescribed burn season will start later than normal.
With all the rain and the snowpack, Pietruszka said, crews didn’t start their first burn until April 28, about a week later than normal.
The prescribed burn season is usually divided into two sections – from mid-April to early June and from late August to November.
June and July are usually too dry for prescribed burns, but that might change this year.
“This year could allow burning in June. It’s not out of the question,” Pietruszka said.
Still, Pietruszka cautioned that forest officials monitor conditions daily to determine the safety of prescribed burns, and burns will be canceled or downsized if conditions turn drier.
Each burn is studied rigorously to ensure a safe, effective prescribed burn, he said.
Currently, San Juan National Forest officials anticipate burning:
7,000 acres in the Dolores Ranger District, the western portion of the forest.6,000 acres in the Columbine Ranger District, the central portion of the forest.3,000 acres in the Pagosa Ranger District, the eastern portion of the forest.
As of Thursday, only 1,784 acres had been burned in the national forest, and 750 acres had been burned on Bureau of Land Management land in Southwest Colorado, Pietruszka said.
So far this year, the wildfire season has been below-average throughout the nation, which provides more firefighting resources to devote to prescribed burns, Pietruszka said.
Smoke from prescribed burns also is likely to be visible from towns across Southwest Colorado, but Pietruszka said officials take precautions to ensure the smoke does not reach unhealthful levels in nearby populated areas.
Generally, the largest prescribed burns are conducted in fall, but current conditions are so ideal, Pietruszka said some larger prescribed burns could go off this spring.