Managing fire is risky business |

Managing fire is risky business

Guest Commentary
Scott Fitzwilliams
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Scott Fitzwilliams

The Meadow Creek Fire started on June 26 near the top of a deep canyon on the edge of Clinetop Mesa. At this time it is 1,452 acres, a small figure compared to the 10-year average of 3.5 million acres of U.S. wildlands that burn every year.

The decision not to put firefighters into a steep-walled canyon with fire rolling downhill was an easy decision to make. Viewing the live web-cam made available for viewing the fire answers that inevitable question, “Why didn’t you put it out right away?”

Managing wildland fire is a risky business. Responding to nature’s blazes is a complicated endeavor filled with uncertainty. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

The Meadow Creek Fire presented an opportunity that as a land manager I feel will prepare us for success. Keep in mind that my utmost consideration was, is and will always be responder and public safety and minimizing the impacts of fire to local communities. Next in importance comes protecting values including facilities and natural resources which could be damaged by fire. Using taxpayer money responsibly is also a priority.

Applying experience, the best science available, hard work and community cooperation gave me confidence in making the decision to limit the Meadow Creek Fire’s spread without entirely extinguishing it. The results are long-term benefits to wildlife and to the land itself. Mountain sheep now have better habitat. The decadent debris choked conifer forest is opened up creating room for more diverse and resilient wildlife and plant species.

It would help to clear up what may be misleading when we report fire acreage. The number used reflects the fire perimeter, not how much of the landscape ends up black. What needs to be emphasized is the way the fire burned. We call it a mosaic, where patches of green vegetation stand out like islands in the ocean. This is the successful result we planned for.

For thousands of years before settlers came to Colorado’s mountains plants and animals adapted to fires. I know that smoke from the Meadow Creek Fire was thick at times, and we need to continue to find ways to minimize the impacts of smoke to local residents. However, I believe we can allow fires to play a role in the forest ecosystem and keep smoke to a manageable limit. Throughout this fire we have worked closely with Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment staff and Garfield County health officials.

One thing I would like to see from this fire is the opening of dialogue on large-scale collaborative forest restoration. A century of fire suppression combined with drought and insect epidemics have left our forests in an unhealthy condition, accumulating an unnatural buildup of fuels. During periods of extensive drought this could pose serious threats to communities. A good example of this condition is the bark beetle epidemic.

If we are to take meaningful and lasting action to improve the condition of our forests we must be willing to use fire and use it on a much larger scale than we have in the past. Risk is inherent in doing this to restore the forest.

Our land management agencies can’t do the hard work ahead without public involvement and understanding of our dilemma and a willingness to be open to a new direction in both fire policy and forest restoration.

It’s a journey I hope you will take with me. The risks inherent in this opportunity to make a difference that will last beyond our lifetime are risks I accept.

Scott Fitzwilliams is the forest supervisor on the White River National Forest in Glenwood Springs.

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