Two recent fires in Southwest Colorado were so dangerous that firefighters had no choice but to break the national habit of quickly putting out fires.
Faced with rugged and remote terrain, the Forest Service approached this year’s West Fork Complex of fires and last year’s Little Sand blaze with a hands-off attitude, protecting human settlements while letting the backcountry burn.
Their strategy just might point to one way out of the nation’s fire trap – the cycle of fire suppression, which invites human settlement, which leads to a buildup of fuel and demands for increasingly expensive fire suppression.
“We’re moving away from that. We’re not just going to go hit it hard because that’s what’s expected of us,” said Adam Mendonca, deputy supervisor of Rio Grande National Forest, who oversaw the strategy for the West Fork Complex.
But instead of making controversial decisions to let fires burn for ecological reasons, foresters are justifying their choices out of concerns for firefighter safety, something that’s more easily understood by the public and elected officials.
The West Fork area, with its extensive spruce beetle kill and a hot, dry summer, was bound to burn, Mendonca said.
“We could deploy the whole world on this, and we couldn’t just put it out,” he said.
The most effective firefighters along Wolf Creek Pass this summer turned out to be aspen trees.
A view from above Big Meadows Campground clearly shows the progress of the fire. Only black sticks remain where the fire blasted through the crown of the brittle spruce-fir forest. Then, a swath of yellow marks the stand of aspen where the fire dropped to the ground and killed the trees, but probably not their roots. Finally, a band of green shows where the fire ran out of steam in the aspen stand.
The terrain was steep and remote, and filled with beetle-killed trees that could tip over at any time.
“There’s some level of risk that folks are comfortable with,” Mendonca said. “And there’s some level you look at as a firefighter and say, ‘Boy, I wouldn’t want to be there.’”
Mendonca estimated that 60 to 65 percent of the firefighting effort was directed to structure protection on private land, even though the massive blazes torched only a little more than a square mile of private land.
“We deployed our firefighting tactics to save homes. We were spending lots and lots of money to save structures,” Mendonca said.
The fires cost $33 million to fight, the Forest Service estimated.
Hide and seek
Lightning touched off the West Fork Fire on June 5 on the west side of the Continental Divide. The first crew dispatched to fight it had one big problem.
“We were trying to find the thing,” said Mark Stiles, supervisor of San Juan National Forest.
There was no way for firefighters to hike in on a hunt for the fire and still maintain the lookouts and escape routes they need to be safe, Stiles said.
And so it sat for a week, smoldering until another thunderstorm kicked it over the mountain and also ignited the Papoose Fire.
Fought together as the West Fork Complex, they became the second-largest fire in Colorado history, at 170 square miles. To the delight of foresters, they destroyed just one structure – a pumphouse – and caused no injuries.
However, the fire caused great disruption to the community, shutting down U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass at the beginning of the summer tourist season.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, received many complaints from constituents, including ranchers who hold grazing leases near the blaze.
“From my home 60 miles away, it looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped over there,” Roberts said.
She agreed with the decision not to put firefighters into dangerous terrain. But she thinks the Forest Service was guilty of allowing the forest to become dangerously overgrown, endangering people and local economies that depend on the forest.
A former park ranger, Roberts understands when Forest Service officials tell her the burned areas will recover in time.
“That’s great. But a 100-year cycle doesn’t help Main Street businesses survive in Pagosa,” she said.
Foresters are also happy about another recent blaze.
Fighting ‘on our turf’
When the Little Sand Fire started northwest of Pagosa Springs in 2012, the town was preparing for Memorial Day weekend tourists, and smoke blanketed the area.
Incident reports from the early days of the fire show officials were concerned about rugged terrain and poor radio communications in the Piedra Valley.
“Let’s back up and take the fire on our turf, rather than chasing it on its turf,” Stiles said in an interview this summer.
Stiles and his officers carried out their strategy just as the Forest Service’s Washington headquarters was clamping down on the practice known as “wildland fire use,” or letting a fire burn for environmental reasons.
On May 25, 2012, the Forest Service’s deputy chief announced a new policy that all fires would have to be fought quickly unless the senior forester in the region gave the approval for wildland fire use.
Just three days earlier, San Juan foresters had ordered a wildland fire use crew to manage the Little Sand blaze. Yet they never shifted into a full-suppression strategy, despite the new policy from Washington.
Instead, just like the West Fork Fire, concerns for firefighter safety kept them from fighting it aggressively. Restoring the forest was a side benefit.
Although some residents demanded a more aggressive firefighting strategy, Stiles said he received good support from the public after foresters started holding meetings to explain the situation.
J.R. Ford, a Pagosa Springs businessman and member of a local forest-health group, said he sensed good community support for the Forest Service once foresters communicated what they wanted to do with the fire.
More than that, the Little Sand and West Fork have gotten landowners interested in forest-health projects.
“These fires have had, in my opinion, a really positive impact because they have made a lot of people step up and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do?’” Ford said.
The fire cleared out much of the overgrowth – a thick tangle of fir, aspen and beetle-killed spruce – in a way that prescribed burns never were able to do. The result, Stiles said, was 22,000 acres of some of the best resource work his foresters have done. The remaining 3,000 acres, he said, “burned pretty hot.”
Today, the northern edge of the fire looks healthier than the adjacent, unburned forest. Many of the trees in the burn area are alive, but the sickly spruce were burned up.
The forest buzzes and peeps with insects and the birds that feed on them. They’re drawn by the carpet of wildflowers bathing in the sunlight that at last is hitting the forest floor, after a long absence.