More controlled burns are necessary to clean out dense, dry and dangerous local forests, U.S. Forest Service officials said.
Across the Missionary Ridge burn scar, the Hermosa Creek area and in many other areas, the forest needs to burn, the officials also told La Plata County commissioners.
“Mother Nature will give us the fire on the ground if we don’t do it ourselves,” said Matt Janowiak, the Columbine District ranger.
More prescribed burns are a step toward preventing high-intensity fires that scorch the soil. Healthy fires should leave living trees and a mosaic of green patches as well as fully burned areas, he said.
Forest Service officials saw success with Sauls Creek area about five miles east of Bayfield this year where the controlled burn received full community support.
The next big project area will stretch from Bayfield to the Piedra River on the southside of U.S. Highway 160. About 50,000 acres in that area need to be burned over several years, he said. The agency is hoping to sign a decision in a couple of months to start with 14,000 acres.
In addition, when weather conditions are right, forest officials are planning to let more fires set by lightning to burn while keeping a watchful and managing a perimeter.
This is especially needed in the Missionary Ridge burn scar, where the fallen dead timber has stacked up.
“The right thing to do is to let natural ignition sources go and let fire play it’s natural role,” Janowiak said.
This push is part of a national initiative to help improve ecosystems that depend on fire as part of their natural cycles.
Some of elected officials, including state Sen. Ellen Roberts and Sheriff-elect Sean Smith, raised some issues they would like to have fixed before major burning takes place.
Currently, the local county sheriffs are on a different frequency than the Forest Service for emergency radio communications, Roberts said.
“We could be putting so many people in harms way,” she said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health Environment’s air-quality standards is another issue that sometimes prevents controlled burning.
“There are thousands of piles across this state that are not burned,” she said.
Despite these hurtles, Roberts and others voiced support for controlled burns.
“Until the day comes (when)we reintroduce fire, we’re not going to have healthy forests ever again,” said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County director of emergency preparedness.