Right now, wildfires are burning all around us. Fire season started in New Mexico, moved to the Front Range of Colorado, and now fires are burning in Arizona and Utah. Closer to home, the West Fork Complex east of Pagosa Springs is threatening Wolf Creek Pass and adjacent areas.
There’s more to fighting fire than what you see. Whether there are slurry bombers in the air or fire engines rolling by, many highly trained people are actively engaged in fighting the “fire of the moment,” and believe me, nobody gets much sleep. Our top priorities this season, as always, are to ensure public and firefighter safety, while steering fires away from what we call “values at risk,” such as homes, ski areas, power lines, pipelines, municipal watersheds, etc.
We have learned that we must fight fire in the right place, at the right time, with the right resources. We aggressively attack any fire that starts on public lands near populated areas, but we have fewer options at our disposal in the inaccessible and rugged backcountry. Everything that can potentially affect fire behavior must be taken into account. Terrain, elevation, season, weather and the firefighting resources at our disposal are all factors around which we build our strategies.
As a wildfire grows, its current and potential fire behavior is monitored closely. The “fuel type” – spruce/fir, ponderosa pine, piñon/juniper – affects both the spread of a fire and our resulting response. If a fire is burning in a forest of standing or downed “bug-killed” trees, it will behave differently than if burning through a live forest. Spot and regional weather forecasts are consulted constantly, and the status of other fires burning regionally and nationally taken into account. This will determine the number of firefighting resources available, including air tankers, helicopters, ground crews, engines, etc.
Fire managers identify in advance all manmade and natural “fuel breaks,” such as roads, rivers, ridgelines and fire lines, where firefighters or aerial resources can make an effective stand against the fire. Terrain can put severe limitations on equipment and firefighters. Every firefighter on the line must know at all times where he or she is in relation to the fire, be able to communicate with lookouts and fellow firefighters, and be able to identify escape routes and accessible safety zones. The danger from falling trees, a particular concern with so many of our forests suffering from expansive beetle kill, plays a huge part in where we can safely use firefighters.
Aircraft are a great resource, and we use air tankers and helicopters extensively, but they also multiply the risks involved and are very expensive. Altitude and terrain affect their capabilities. Mountains make for rapidly changing wind currents, dissected terrain calls for tight maneuvering, and the fire itself creates its own weather patterns. Firefighting aircraft not only must take off and land multiple times with heavy loads, but must negotiate the tricky act of dropping water or retardant. Think of the sense of relief you feel after a successful takeoff or landing on a commercial flight, and multiply your awareness of risk by dozens of times. That’s the scenario for each day of an aerial firefighting effort.
Choosing to fight fire from the air is a choice between those risks and the anticipated effectiveness. For instance, the West Fork Fire this week at times put up so much smoke that aerial attack planes could not even see it, much less fly safely over it. At other times, slurry bombers may be ineffective if flames are below the forest canopy because the retardant gets hung up in the tops of the trees, never reaching the fire below.
It’s important to note that not all fires result in tragic consequences for humans or for forest resources. For example, last summer’s lightning-caused Little Sand Fire burned through 25,000 acres of dense forests in the Piedra Area surrounding the Sportman’s community north of Pagosa Springs. Locals attest that this small rural community is now safer than it has been in the last 75 years.
Little Sand burned in rugged backcountry that was, as fire managers often warn, literally “waiting to burn.” Our efforts focused on protecting adjacent private lands, structures and related economic concerns, along with keeping firefighters safe in rugged country with continuous fuels. We choose the best ground upon which to fight the fire, so we had the best chance of effectively addressing it.
The end result was that the Little Sand firefighting effort was safe, effective and relatively inexpensive. No firefighters were seriously injured, no structures were lost, and the community was protected. The surrounding forest and wildlife habitat was rejuvenated, and the fire hazard to the larger landscape and adjacent private lands greatly reduced. But all this was accomplished at the expense of weeks of smoke, reduced economic activity, and wear and tear on area residents.
The ongoing fires east of Pagosa Springs will not have quite the same beneficial results and are posing substantial threats to private property and municipal watersheds. But over the years, this area, too, will return as a rejuvenated forest more resistant to large-scale beetle infestations and fire. Our natural systems have survived for centuries with periodic fires, some small and some very large, and wildfires will burn now and in the future.
Wildland firefighting will continue to be dangerous and complex work, and communities affected by fire will continue to pay a high price. We at the U.S. Forest Service will work closely with our many partners to do our best to protect the public and to reduce impacts to populated areas and other values at risk. However, attempting to save structures will never justify risking the loss of a firefighter’s life.
We will continue to use the best strategies, equipment and personnel available to effectively, and most importantly, safely address the threat of fire to our local communities and forests.
Mark Stiles is the supervisor of the San Juan National Forest. For up-to-date information about fires currently burning in the West, visit www.inciweb.org. For information on the San Juan National Forest, visit www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan