Fire is needed to thin out dense forests spanning hundreds of thousands of acres across Southwest Colorado, fire officials say, to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires that can take hold in the heavy fuels that have been allowed to build up unchecked for decades.
Last summer, firefighters were busy battling the 54,000-acre 416 Fire north of Durango, but now moist conditions are giving wildland managers a chance to mitigate the risk of huge infernos by managing natural fires and lighting prescribed burns to consume dead wood and undergrowth.
“What we’re trying to do is eliminate that big catastrophic fire that burns into towns,” said Rich Gustafson, Southern Ute Agency fire management officer.
If severe fires move into forests that have already burned at a low intensity, it can slow their advance and give firefighters the chance to gain the upper hand. Smoke from controlled burns can also be managed so that it does not settle into the valleys, as the haze from the 416 Fire did, fire experts said.
This week, Gustafson led efforts to spread the lightning-caused Pine Tree Fire across more than 700 acres in southwestern Archuleta County.
Ground crews spread the blaze with drip torches and hand-held guns used to fire pingpong-sized balls filled with glycol and potassium permanganate into the forest. The balls burst into flames as they fly through the air. After hitting the ground, the balls smoke and are consumed by fire. After spreading within containment lines, the Pine Tree Fire was expected to smolder and go out this week.
The Pine Tree Fire is one of many blazes firefighters have managed this summer across the region. This fall, firefighters plan to burn thousands of additional acres.
Officials for the San Juan National Forest burned about 9,000 acres this year and may burn an additional 10,000 to 16,000 acres this year, said Brad Pietruszka, fuels program manager for the agency.
The agency’s goal is to burn an average of about 20,000 acres a year depending on conditions, which is up from about 6,000 acres annually, he said. The agency plans to continue increasing the annual acreage it can manage with fire, he said.
“We are trying to not shoot straight for the moon, but increase our capacity at a slower rate,” he said.
The agency needs to reintroduce fire to about 750,000 acres of ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests on the San Juan National Forest, he said.
The more firefighters can reduce fuels, the easier it becomes to manage forests with controlled burns on a large scale.
“The more fire you put out there, the easier it is to put more fire back on the landscape,” he said.
Ponderosa pine forests need to burn every 10 to 20 years to be maintained properly, he said.
The agency prioritizes controlled burns near homes, infrastructure and other assets to protect them from wildfire, he said.
Fire can also be used to regenerate portions of the forest where beetles have killed large swaths of trees, he said. The fire consumes dead needles revealing the bare soil that ponderosa pines need to sprout, he said. The fire also clears underbrush, making it easier to log the dead trees, he said.
The Forest Service expected beetle-killed areas to burn hotter than green areas of the forest, but the opposite happened this year in forests on the Dolores Ranger District, Pietruszka said.
The dead trees, free of needles, had far less fuel for fire in their canopy and burned less intensely, he said.
The Bureau of Land Management has also taken advantage of the moist conditions this year to burn 709 acres near Bayfield and Dove Creek, said Ian Barrett, fire management specialist with the agency’s Southwest Colorado Fire and Aviation Management Unit.
One of the parcels the agency burned was surrounded by private property and oil and gas infrastructure, making it particularly challenging, he said.
The agency has been waiting for the right conditions to burn the 286-acre property for about seven years, he said. It’s not uncommon for prescribed fires to require years of planning, in part, to help prevent flames from escaping, he said.
“We have a robust burn plan to make sure we have ideal conditions,” Barrett said.
The BLM manages about 5,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest in the region, and 3,800 acres of it has burned over the last five years, he said. This fall, the agency plans to burn an additional 750 acres near Dove Creek.
“We are moving in a really positive direction,” he said.