Lost Solar Fire: ‘More marathon than sprint’
Burning for the last month after a lightning strike, the Lost Solar Fire in the western Flat Tops Wilderness has grown to about 4,500 acres. But U.S. Forest Service personnel say they could hardly have prescribed a better fire.
“This isn’t a direct attack where we try to put it out as fast as we can,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest.
Instead fire crews are approaching the blaze with intense monitoring.
“This operation is more of a marathon than a sprint,” said Kate Jerman, White River National Forest spokeswoman.
Forest Service personnel expect the Lost Solar Fire to be a long-term event that won’t stop burning until the first snows of the year. The fact the fire is on the edge of a designated wilderness also makes the Forest Service want to be as hands-off as possible.
Firefighter safety also is a big consideration, said Curtis Keetch, Rio Blanco District ranger.
Rather than putting numerous firefighters into action and digging fire lines around the blaze on steep and hazardous terrain, the crews are carefully tracking the Lost Solar Fire and predicting where natural barriers — cliffs, previously burned areas, aspen stands and high elevations — are going to halt the fire, said Keetch.
And just like previously burned areas act as a good barrier for this fire, the area that the Lost Solar Fire burns will be another barrier for future fires, said Jim Genung, incident commander on the Lost Solar Fire.
Allowing this type of fire to burn is beneficial on multiple fronts — thinning stands that have grown too thick, opening habitat for wildlife, reducing fuels for future fires, promoting younger vegetation and opening the area for hunters and their game, to name a few.
“In a way, this was a pre-planned event,” said Genung.
Fire benefits plant diversity
White River’s fire management plan breaks its territory into polygons with different approaches to wildland fires. In some, the crews will engage in direct firefighting. But areas like the Lost Solar Fire are predetermined to be left largely alone.
“It’s important to take the opportunity when we can to let the fire play its natural role in the ecosystem,” said Fitzwilliams. “The ecology of the intermountain west’s vegetation has evolved around the disturbances of fires.”
About 150 years ago this forest probably would have had a fire like this once or more per year, said Genung.
After decades of fire mitigation, the forest probably has more trees now than in any other time in its history, said Fitzwilliams.
The trees in this area are all about the same age class as well, and the Lost Solar Fire will promote a greater diversity in age and species of plant life.
Aspen and conifers are in constant competition for space, said Genung. And aspens in particular thrive in disturbances like wildland fires.
The fire is burning what Fitzwilliams called “maintenance holes” that change the forest’s dynamics.
With more diversity in age and species, a forest can more easily withstand beetle epidemics and climate change.
“A more diverse forest is a more resilient forest,” said Fitzwilliams.
The intense heat from larger fires also sterilizes the soil, largely eliminating the benefit of regenerating vegetation, said Genung.
In contrast, the Lost Solar Fire is creating a perfect “mosaic burn pattern,” an asymmetrical pattern that’s ideal for habitat.
A small herd of big horn sheep in the area also is going to benefit from the fire, as they tend to stick to open areas where they can see predators.
This hands-off approach also has several short-term negative impacts, including smoke drifting into nearby communities and edging out hunting outfitters.
Smoke has drifted into Eagle and Summit counties, down to Interstate 70 and up to Steamboat Springs. The Forest Service is putting an air quality monitoring station in Yampa.
Working with the state air quality inspectors to track the smoke dispersal, the agency also is putting out alerts to communities they expect to be impacted.
About 10 primitive cabins sit on a private inholding just southwest of the fire, and the fire crews have been setting up hoses and sprinklers to protect the area.
Owners of these properties have let the fire crews stage equipment on their property, which gives them a place to land a helicopter nearby without infringing on the wilderness’s restrictions of motorized vehicles.
But the long-term benefits of allowing the fire to burn naturally are worth those short-term problems, according to the Forest Service’s leadership. Not to mention that it’s a lot cheaper than spending millions of dollars actively fighting the fire, said Fitzwilliams.
The man power for this operation is relatively small at about 10 crew members monitoring the fire. They’re constantly measuring the moisture of fuel samples from the area to predict changes in fire behavior.
The Forest Service also is making daily helicopter trips over the fire to keep tabs on its growth. And they’ve utilized a multi-mission aircraft for high-altitude video, still shots and infrared scanning of the fire.
This fire management plan has several trigger points, such that, if the fire passes them, the fire crews will reconsider their approach and decide if more proactive steps need to be taken to halt or divert the fire in an area.
But if all goes well, there simply won’t be a direct attack on this fire.
“We’re returning fire to the landscapes and returning the landscapes to the way they naturally function,” said Genung.
“There is no option of eliminating wildlands fires from the West,” said Fitzwilliams. And that’s especially true when you add the effects of climate change, he said. “If we want to live here and enjoy what the area has to offer, then fires are going to be part of our lives.”
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