Prescribed burn bill of questionable value to Colorado
Congress just passed a bill to tighten controls over when the U.S. Forest Service can have prescribed burns, but it’s unlikely that it would ever be applicable locally.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents Colorado’s sprawling 3rd District, praised the bill’s passage in a recent press release.
“I’ve long advocated for more coordination between the federal government and state and local fire officials when it comes to scheduling prescribed burns,” Tipton wrote. “No one is going to have a better grasp of the conditions on the ground than the men and women who travel the land every day. More coordination between federal and local officials will help prevent prescribed burns from growing out of control.”
The succinct bill is narrowly focused. It bars the secretary of agriculture from scheduling a prescribed burn on Forest Service land when the county, or a contiguous county, is under an “extreme” level of fire danger, which is the highest level.
The only exception to that rule is if the Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, coordinates with local fire officials and the state government for that prescribed burn.
In western Colorado, though, the Forest Service doesn’t hold prescribed burns during times of extreme fire danger, according to local officials.
“During extreme fire danger is never a time when we would burn, so I don’t know the impetus of this and don’t want to make any judgment about it,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor.
Intimate coordination with local fire departments is also essential to White River’s fire operations, he said. And any prescribed burn is going to have tight standards and numerous considerations beyond just the fire danger level, said the forest supervisor.
Local fire departments are usually on site working the prescribed burn, “which is part of the whole apparatus that makes the whole thing work,” said Fitzwilliams. “We also have to get permits for anything we burn, so we work closely with the state, including with air quality folks.”
He said it’s also pretty unlikely that the Forest Service would hold a prescribed burn at a “high” level of fire danger, which is the next level down.
“To go burning during extreme fire danger would be a career-limiting move, for sure,” said Fitzwilliams. “It’s not something I would want to risk.”
The local area also hasn’t had many recent issues with prescribed fires getting out of control.
“We certainly have the same goals as Congressman Tipton, to only burn what we intend to burn,” he said.
“A burn at Avalanche Creek was a recent example of one that went a couple acres outside of where we wanted it to go.”
But that was still in a very common, very safe range, he said.
Fitzwilliams said he’s never been a part of a prescribed fire that escaped control and resulted in loss of property or life.
“Every time you put fire on the landscape, you can’t completely eliminate the risks, but you can minimize the risks, recognize them and set up trigger points.”
Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson, too, said that prescribed burns at the highest fire danger level simply don’t happen here, and the Forest Service works closely with the locals.
“I don’t think it’s needed legislation from my experience,” he said.
The Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer in 2012 is a fire from recent memory that led to extensive property damage and some loss of life. However, that was a state-run prescribed burn, which the new law will not affect. And Tillotson did not believe that area was under “extreme” fire danger when it happened.
“None of the burn managers here would do a prescribed burn during extreme fire danger,” said Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Chief Scott Thompson. “That’s unconscionable, and I’ve never seen a federal burn boss that would do that.”
Prescribed burns are also planned with surrounding buffer zones so a fire that starts to get outside of the intended burn area doesn’t immediately start damaging other property.
“I don’t understand what this bill would attempt that we don’t already do,” said Thompson.
Extreme fire danger usually comes from June to August, which is also not when prescribed burns are conducted, he said.
Concerning the Forest Service’s coordination efforts with local departments, Thompson said that “if we [the local fire departments] don’t feel comfortable with the conditions, we don’t light the fire.”
Liz Payne, Tipton’s communications director, said there were examples of prescribed burns that turned catastrophic in South Dakota. Payne did not know of any incidents in Colorado of prescribed burns in extreme fire danger, or Forest Service fires causing significant property damage.
The bill will make sure those incidents don’t occur in Colorado, she said.
The bill falls into Tipton’s purview partly because he chairs the Congressional Western Caucus, which takes up issues across the West, said Payne.