BAYFIELD – If a crowning event can seem anticlimactic to the lengthy planning that led up to it, prescribed burning of overgrown forest to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire has to qualify.
So it was earlier this month when foresters put the torch to the first of 1,100 acres of vegetation-choked mountains in the Sauls Creek area five miles east of Bayfield.
Members of an interdisciplinary team of specialists had their collective eye on Sauls Creek for years as needing fuel reduction, Chris Tipton, a U.S. Forest Service division chief, said.
The landscape was clogged with thick vegetation. Absent natural wildfire that keeps a forest thin, a prescribed burn was the answer, Tipton said.
A prescribed burn is the methodical process, under conditions as controlled as possible, by which hazardous forest understory is removed.
It is one means, along with timber sales and mechanical thinning, of reducing the risk of wildfires, Tipton said. The Sauls Creek area is long overdue because it hasn’t seen fire in decades.
Planning a prescribed burn necessarily follows guidelines of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, often called NEPA. Under NEPA, agencies must consider various scenarios – including taking no action – and their consequences. They take public comment and involve various levels of the agency hierarchy.
Firefighters have learned from bitter experience the importance of detailed plans for prescribed burns, Tipton said.
He cited the Cerro Grande Fire of May 2000 in New Mexico. The fire, which started as a controlled burn, flared out of control because of drought conditions and high wind.
It eventually covered 48,000 acres, destroying more than 400 homes in the town of Los Alamos and destroying or damaging structures at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Lower North Fork Fire of March 2012 brought changes in how the state guards against and fights wildfires.
The Lower North Fork, which began as a prescribed burn near Foxton, charred 4,100 acres, destroyed 23 homes and killed three people.
As a result, the state transferred the responsibility for fires fighting from the Colorado State Forest Service to a newly created Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“Wildfire is foreign and exotic to most people,” Tipton said. “Ninety-eight percent of small fires are caught in the initial attack, but the 2 percent that aren’t are what makes headlines.”
Prescribed burns, methodically crafted, are designed to prevent unexpected fires from falling into the 2 percent, Tipton said.
“We’re trying to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was impressed by the methodical approach taken when Tipton’s crew touched off the first two parcels of the Sauls Creek burn, which was scant yards from homes in the Deer Valley subdivision.
“I was gratified to see how proactive they were,” Robert said. “They had hot shots every few feet on the perimeter who were alert for embers.”
Roberts said prescribed burning, when used safely, is a necessary tool for forest management.
When the NEPA process for a prescribed burn ends, the nitty-gritty details are worked out, Tipton said.
Firefighters respond immediately to wildfire with the tools and personnel available, Tipton said.
“But with a prescribed burn, we have time on our side,” Tipton said. “We can be very analytical.”
Among factors involved in deciding when, where and how to conduct a prescribed burn are the types of fuel targeted, temperature, weather, relative humidity, wind, fuel moisture, smoke dispersal and fire behavior, Tipton said.
“We look at the best and worst potential for fire behavior,” Tipton said. “We do a complex analysis of technical difficulty, risk and consequences.
“We begin looking at the weather window starting two months out,” Tipton said. “At about 2½ weeks out, we have an action plan and make specific assignments.”
Pam Wilson, a retired Forest Service employee and now executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, said the residents of the Deer Valley subdivision urged the Forest Service to do the Sauls Creek prescribed burn as extra peace of mind for them.
“The key word is ‘prescribed’ because it means a lot of attention to detail has gone into planning,” Wilson said. “They have to be careful when they put fire on the ground.”
Wilson, a Type 1 fire information officer qualified to work the biggest incidents, took the FireWise program to Deer Valley residents.
Deer Valley, a subdivision of about 75 homes, is a recognized Firewise community by National Firewise Communities USA, Wilson said.
A prescribed-burn plan, which takes months to craft, can get reviewed by higher echelons – the district ranger or the forest supervisor, Tipton said.
Everything has to fall into place, Tipton said. If conditions don’t fit the prescription, the burn won’t happen.