1995 plan’s aim was to reintroduce fire to Trappers Lake area
The “cradle of wilderness” is being tested in the crucible of a hands-off wilderness wildfire policy.
Despite crews’ best efforts at protection, the Big Fish Fire claimed eight structures at Trappers Lake, where the very idea of wilderness was first conceived.
Early in the 20th century, Arthur Carhart was sent to survey the area around the lake for summer homes. After his visit, he argued instead to protect the area as wild land – a concept that spread to public lands nationwide.
Management of wilderness areas includes prohibiting use of motorized vehicles and limiting the size of groups visiting the land. But it also includes trying to let fire play its natural role in the landscape.
On the Flat Tops, fire played a prominent role in the ecosystem before European settlement, according to a 1995 U.S. Forest Service guide to restoring fire as a natural feature in the region.
Infrequent large fires helped certain trees propagate and improved habitat for wildlife.
But the 20th century saw a concerted effort to fight fire in and around the Flat Tops Wilderness. Fire was prevented from helping maintain biological diversity in the forest ecosystem, and from contributing to a “highly dynamic mosaic of vegetation in various stages of succession,” according to the 1995 report.
Fire suppression also allowed heavy buildup of fuels, laying the kindling for a huge wildfire that could threaten inhabited areas as well.
The 1995 plan – a 202-page document with a drawing on the cover of what appears to be Trappers Lake with a plume of smoke rising behind it – aimed to reintroduce fire to the landscape, to improve the ecosystem and reduce the chance of catastrophic fire.
It was written a year after foresters allowed a successful hands-off burn, the Ute Creek Fire, in the Flat Tops Wilderness west of Trappers lake.
The plan identified 145,000 acres in the area that could burn without suppression.
When a naturally caused fire occurs in this area, it is analyzed for such a fire management approach.
Fire managers consider drought levels and fuel loads, weather outlooks and historical climatological data, smoke concerns, and cultural and other resources at risk.
Wayne Cook, who heads a national-level team that manages such fires, said weather can be one of the trickiest considerations, since it is so difficult to forecast beyond a few days.
Even when fires are allowed to burn freely, they are analyzed daily for changing conditions that may force a new approach. If the fire reaches trigger points, certain action, such as structure protection, would be taken.
In the case of the Big Fish Fire, it has not succeeded the “maximum manageable area” intended. If it did, firefighting would begin outside that area.
Still, the fire appears to have grown even more than anticipated in 1995. The plan talks of fires reaching several thousand acres in size. By late last week, the Big Fish Fire had consumed 14,500 acres, or a full 10 percent of the area covered by the 1995 plan.
Yet in Cook’s opinion, it remains a success in consuming heavy fuel and helping the Flat Tops Wilderness ecosystem. The one setback was losing structures.
When heavy winds drove the Big Fish Fire to the Trappers Lake area before crews finished structure protection measures, it showed the inexact nature of fire forecasting, and the need to pay full attention to clues provided by such tools as weather forecasts, Cook believes.
“It’s a reminder all around Colorado, all around Oregon, all around Arizona and New Mexico. You just have to stick with it and manage it based on the complexity, based on the indicators,” Cook said.
The 1995 plan notes one risk of not suppressing fires is the possible federal liability for private property loss. Cook said the standard practice would be for the property owner’s insurance company to file a loss claim with the Forest Service.
While part of the goal of not suppressing fires in wilderness areas is to respect the inherently wild nature of these areas, that doesn’t rule out or even restrict firefighting efforts if circumstances require them. This summer, the White River National Forest received temporary approval from regional Forest Service officials to use motorized equipment if needed to fight fires in its eight wilderness areas through the end of this year.
WRNF spokesperson Sue Froeschle said all-terrain vehicle and bulldozer use was not included in this approval, but their use also could be authorized later if need be.
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