Transcript for the Piece Audio version of USFS Fire Policy
*** USFS FIRE POLICY ***
ERIC WHITNEY: Last week on Western Skies we visited the scene of the Mason Gulch fire in the Wet Mountains, about twenty-five miles west of Pueblo. Mike Smith of the Pike-San Isabel National Forest showed us how a forest thinning project, done last year, effectively slowed the fire’s progress this year, and played a role in saving the fifty to sixty houses in the community of Greenwood.
This week we go back, and Smith talks about another tool the Forest Service is asking for to further help reduce fire danger. 24
MIKE SMITH: Right now we’re down in the area that we did thin last fall, and used a machine to mulch the understory and downed logs and small trees. And leave all the trees that are basically eight, nine inches and up, we removed very few of those. We just took out the small stuff.
WHITNEY: We’re at the bottom of Mason Gulch, very close to where a lightning strike ignited the blaze that eventually consumed close to twelve thousand acres and cost more than five million dollars to fight. It’s surprisingly green here, though, with lots of healthy, tall trees left behind. Smith says that’s because last fall, the mulching machine took out the brush and smaller trees that would have allowed the fire to move from the ground into the tops, or canopy, of the trees, and sustained a very intense burn. As it was, the fire didn’t have enough fuel, and just burned itself out on the ground without doing much damage.
The bottom of the gulch is starkly contrasted by the hills surrounding it, where thinning wasn’t done. They’re almost completely black and lifeless.
SMITH: Of the trees that are left on those slopes, maybe eighty percent were burned up and only twenty percent survived, whereas down in the bottom where we did the fuels treatment project, it's the exact opposite. Looks like we're only going to lose about twenty percent of the canopy and the other eighty percent will be the green area that will help to restock or reseed the adjacent, more black and more intensely-burned areas.
WHITNEY: The reason the Forest Service didn’t thin the surrounding hills is mostly because of time and money constraints. While land managers have seen substantial increases in their fuels reduction budgets since the year 2000, it’s nowhere close to enough to thin all of the overgrown areas. It cost about two hundred and fifty dollars an acre to run the mulcher through Mason Gulch. But the machine can’t work on the steep hills surrounding it, which means people with chainsaws would have to go in and do the work, bumping up the cost by up to four times.
The other option Smith has is to use what’s called prescribed fire. That’s when forest managers deliberately start fires in the spring and fall, when conditions are cooler and moister, and the risk of a fire getting out of hand are smaller. Smith says a prescribed burn done in 2000 helped to slow the Mason Gulch fire on its northwest flank this year.
SMITH: In this area that was prescribe burned, the fire carried through that, but with much less intensity. And it slowed enough that we were able to actually get crews around on the flanks of that fire, whereas in some of the untreated stuff, there's no way we could put crews anywhere near that area for several days, until things had cooled off.
WHITNEY: But Smith and other forest managers on the Pike-San Isabel aren’t allowed to use another tool that’s common on other national forests in the region, it’s called Wild Land Fire Use. What it means is, when lightning starts a fire, forest managers are allowed to evaluate its potential to get out of hand and, if they feel it’s appropriate, they can let it burn within a set of planned parameters, and let natural fire play its natural role in the ecosystem.
PAUL LANGOWSKI: Calling it a “let it burn policy” is inaccurate.
WHITNEY: Paul Langowski oversees fuels and fire ecology for the Forest Service’s five state Rocky Mountain region.
LANGOWSKI: They’re being monitored, there’s plans associated with them. There’s an active response to managing that incident.
WHITNEY: Langowski says managers take into account the time of year a wildfire starts, and weather and fuel moisture levels, when considering whether wildland fire use is appropriate. They’re also very cognizant of location, and are less likely to manage fire, rather than suppress it, if it’s burning close to homes or other values, like historic sites, rare plant communities, or watersheds. If a fire is allowed to burn to help reduce fuel levels, it’s monitored closely. And if it moves beyond pre-set boundaries, a suppression team is brought in to contain it.
Langowski says a wildland fire use fire has never gotten out of hand to the point where it destroyed property in the Rocky Mountain region, but that it has happened in “a few isolated cases” elsewhere.
Federal land managers have been using fire as a tool to reduce the risk of larger, more devastating wildfires since the 1970s. And, Langowski says, the tool is becoming more effective and widely used. But there are still skeptics.
JIM SOLTIS: It would appear, although it may not be framed as “let it burn,” but it’s something very much akin to that.
WHITNEY: Jim Soltis is the city manager of Trinidad, which wrote a letter to the Pike-San Isabel National Forest saying it has very serious concerns about not suppressing every wildfire in the vicinity of the two reservoirs on Forest Service land that supply the city’s drinking water.
SOLTIS: The land adjoins our lakes and our watershed area. And obviously, any type of a large fire would certainly effect our watershed and then the pollution that would come from that would directly effect our drinking water. And that’s a major serious concern that we have.
WHITNEY: Soltis has invited Forest Service officials to come to a Trinidad City Council meeting and explain their objectives.
At this point, the Pike-San Isabel is one of only three national forests in the five state region that doesn’t allow wildland fire use fires. It’s going through a formal public process to change that on its lands south of the Arkansas river, and in the Salida ranger district. Public comment is open through August and, so far, the Pike-San Isabel’s Mike Smith says, it’s been mostly favorable.
SMITH: Some comments are like, “we thought you guys were already doing that.” Or, “it’s about time.” Perhaps having seen the intensity of this Mason Gulch fire, it’ll be interesting to see if that changes public perceptions.
WHITNEY: Smith says that if everything goes well, managers on the south end of the Pike-San Isabel will be able to manage natural fires to benefit the ecosystem and reduce fire danger starting in the spring of 2006. He says the area typically gets about twelve lightning-sparked fires a year. And he anticipates that two-thirds of those would still be aggressively suppressed.
SMITH: But even with just allowing ten to twenty-five percent of the fires to burn, we expect to cover a fair amount of landscape over a decade, that would burn maybe anywhere from two to six thousand, eight thousand acres on the outside end, depending on which alternative we select, And on a five hundred thousand acre area, it doesn't sound like that much, but again this is a long term policy change, and over, say, thirty, forty years that would make a significant difference in helping us to not have major severe fires like this Mason Gulch fire running twelve thousnd acres in one chunk, that is just not characteristic of this area.
WHITNEY: A copy of the Forest Service’s letter asking for permission to enact a Wildland Fire Use policy is available on our website. Look for the Western Skies button at the KRCC homepage, that’s KRCC.org.Back