To let-burn or not to let-burn | PostIndependent.com
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To let-burn or not to let-burn

Dennis Webb

Following the loss of the historic Trappers Lake Lodge in the Aug. 16 blowup of the Big Fish Fire, federal officials are analyzing the let-burn policy for the area.

They aren’t questioning the basic tenet of the policy: In some places, fire is a natural part of the landscape, and letting it run its course within certain parameters is acceptable.

Wayne Cook, incident commander on the 15,000-acre wildfire in the Flat Tops, heads one of three U.S. interagency teams that manage fires for their benefits rather than fighting them. He said the loss of Trappers Lake Lodge was nothing less than a tragedy.

Still, he said, “My positive outlook on this thing is it could have been significantly worse.”

Aside from losing structures, Cook considers the policy at Big Fish a success, one that is reducing the danger for far greater losses.

“Without a doubt, the objectives are being met. Hands down they’re being met,” he said.

The decision to let the fire burn has reduced the chances of a more catastrophic Flat Tops fire that could have claimed far more structures, and perhaps lives, Cook believes.

That’s because the Flat Tops, unlike some other forest environments, is naturally suited to have less frequent fires that burn bigger as they race through accumulated fuels.

“It’s going to happen. Whether it’s under your terms or Ma Nature’s terms, you’re going to have fire there, period,” said Cook.

Stopping fires leads to more fuel buildup and even bigger and more dangerous fires, said Cook. He believes it’s better to let wildfires burn under managed circumstances, as foresters intended at the Big Fish Fire.

Although Trappers Lake Lodge was lost, many other structures in the fire’s path were saved, he said. Not to downplay the loss, but buildings can be rebuilt, Cook noted.

“But there was no life lost, and in this type of event, that is a success in itself,” he said.

The thinking behind a let-burn fire management policy may sound good in the abstract. Put to the test, it meant that much of a historic resort was reduced to ashes by a fire that smoldered for weeks at less than 50 acres with no firefighting efforts.

U.S. Forest Service officials fully expect to face hard questions about the approach to the Big Fish Fire, and that is proper, said White River National Forest spokeswoman Sue Froeschle. Already, she said, foresters nationwide plan to share what can be learned from the fire.

Cook helped develop the plan for letting Big Fish burn and was taking over the fire’s management the afternoon the lodge burned. He has encouraged regional Forest Service officials to bring in impartial Forest Service experts to assess the actions taken on the fire.

An initial assessment was just completed.

While other factors also played a role, the focus is on a dry cold front that ushered in sustained, heavy winds and caught confident fire managers off guard.

Winds pushed the fire into the Trappers Lake area before structure protection could be put in place.

Other factors may have been a lack of fire crews and an inability to get equipment where it was needed in time, he said.

“All of these kind of questions are being looked at also.”

Cook suspects the need for vigilance will be a primary lesson.

“You have to stay vigilant in every fire that you manage. You have to base that level of vigilance on the evolving weather and fire behavior,” he said.

But managing wildfire is not an exact science.

“We use the best available science in everything that we do,” he said. But, “you can’t get it 100 percent all the time.”

Meanwhile, questions are emerging from the public.

In a letter to the Post Independent, Norma Schmoyer, of Burns, a small community on the east side of the Flat Tops, expressed frustration that the fire wasn’t put out when it was small. The blowup resulted in burnt buildings, choking smoke in her community, and threats to other ranches and structures, all in a year of extreme drought and tinder-dry conditions.

Schmoyer wrote that while she understands the need for fuel reduction, “this is simply not the year for a burn, prescribed or otherwise.”

She called “for the Forest Service to re-evaluate its `let it burn’ policy. It is arrogant, and places lives, homes, businesses and property at risk, and we the taxpayers ultimately pay the bill.”

In Meeker, the town with easiest access to the Trappers Lake area, Froeschle said her sense is that residents are sad about losing the lodge but feel a big fire was inevitable. She credits this in part to Meeker residents’ participation writing the 1995 plan for allowing fires to burn on part of the Flat Tops.

“I think they have a better appreciation and understanding of what this fire was all about,” Froeschle said.

Tony Weis, a Meeker gallery owner who has visited the Trappers Lake area since his childhood, said many in Meeker agree that fire has been needed in the Flat Tops, as far back as the 1920s and 1930s.

“Anything will help that really heavily fueled area, because the deadfall is notorious,” he said.

His problem is that structures were lost as well.

“I’m not comfortable with buildings burning. I think that’s part of what the policies and the attacks should be, is protect structures,” Weis said. “I think the feeling is that they could have done more to protect the structures there rather than being somewhere else.”

Fire managers fully intended to keep the flames at bay at Trappers Lake. They simply thought they had more time.

For a while, it seemed they had nothing but time. Lightning started the fire July 19, but monsoon rains kept it small. When hot, dry weather returned, the fire began to grow. It advanced on Trappers Lake and the nearby Rio Blanco Ranch quicker than anticipated.

Crews were able to protect structures at Rio Blanco Ranch and other places in the valley below Trappers Lake, spreading water hoses and wrapping structures with a fire-resistant material. But they ran out of time at Trappers Lake.

Cook said crews had a “very involved structure protection plan” to use at Trappers Lake. But the fire moved so fast, crews had to retreat. With no safe areas at the lake, they faced being trapped if the fire blocked their exit along the only road down the valley.

Froeschle said the fire raced east, toward Trappers Lake, rather than north, as expected.

“It moved faster than they thought and in a direction that they didn’t anticipate, so consequently they didn’t have adequate structural protection in place there,” she said.

“They really thought that they could have a fire like this and protect the structures. They really believed that,” she added.

Weis’ frustration over the lack of structure protection is tempered, knowing it might have endangered lives.

“Maybe it ran them out of there,” he said of the fire.

He believes, however, that the fire danger in the region could have been cut over the decades had more logging been allowed.

“I see a big waste of commercial products,” he said.

Logging is prohibited in wilderness areas, and Weis opposes the designation of such areas. While he doesn’t want to see all wilderness logged, less restrictive forms of land management could have reduced fuel loads, he said.

“Now we can’t do anything,” he added.

Dan Stogsdill, owner of Trappers Lake Lodge, was hesitant to comment on the Forest Service policy for managing the Big Fish Fire.

“We sure hated to lose the lodge, obviously,” he said.

“I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than I understand or any layperson will understand. “We’re disappointed, obviously, but we’re just not qualified to make a judgment,” he said.

“There’s plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks around the area who think it’s crazy,” he said of the policy. But he said they probably are no more qualified to be criticizing it.

Stogsdill is motivated to be careful about his comments regarding the Forest Service. He leases national forest land to operate his resort.

“They are our landlords, so we want to be respectful of that relationship,” he said.

“They do own the land. They own all the hundreds of thousands of acres around it. As the landlord they are entitled to operate the lands as they see fit.”

All in all, he considers the agency good to work with.

“Sometimes they do get a bad rap,” he said. A lot of people, he said, believe “the federal government of any kind is evil incarnate.

“I don’t feel that way. My experience with the Forest Service has been . by and large, they have been very accommodating.”

Stogsdill thinks the fire could have been successfully suppressed while it was still small. Yet he recognizes the need to let fire burn to reduce fuel loads, and the chance that something could go wrong in allowing that to happen.

“If you’re sitting in the middle of a powder keg, you’re definitely going to be at risk,” he said.

The agency has an obligation to try to protect structures, said Stogsdill, but he believes there’s a greater risk in trying to suppress fires where they are bound to occur.

“Sometimes there is this policy of greater good, and in trying to balance a zillion factors, there may be some people hurt in the process,” he noted.

In the end, “the weather did some pretty dramatic things,” and his lodge was lost.

“I gotta tell you I was devastated and shocked,” Stogsdill said. “We never expected this. I don’t think they did either. It was just a tragedy.”

What was tragic for the lodge is nevertheless healthy for the forest and for nearby residents, Cook believes.

The spruce/fir/aspen trees that dominate the Flat Tops are not as flammable as the ponderosa pines found at lower elevations. As a result, much fuel accumulates in these higher forests before a fire comes along that is hot and fast enough to burn them. And the resulting fires are bigger.

Experts say the Big Fish Fire moved through forest with fuel loads as high as 40 to 100 tons per acre, much more fuel than in an average wildfire.

While some may question the wisdom of not suppressing fire in a year of such extreme drought and dry fuel conditions, Cook said it is just such conditions that are needed to burn through heavy fuels.

A fire as big as Big Fish comes along only once every 100 to 300 years, and the same can be said for the conditions that allow for it.

“This is the year in Colorado,” said Cook.

Through management, crews were at least able to save Rio Blanco Ranch and other structures, said Cook.

“Whether you manage for this event or you let an event that you’re not prepared for happen, either way you have to have fire in this situation,” he said.

The alternative would have been to suppress the fire, but later face a conflagration that no amount of suppression could have stopped. Such a fire could do a lot more damage, and perhaps claimed lives.

“Let’s face it, there could have been the situation where this wouldn’t have been managed, you just would have had to get out of the way and evacuated the entire drainage.” Cook said. “There would have been no structure protection.”

As it was, crews were able to save a lot of buildings, but their goals fell short at Trappers Lake.

“The weather was the major contributor to what happened here – this dry cold front that snuck in, if you will,” said Cook.


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