It’s prescribed burn time — if weather cooperates | PostIndependent.com

It’s prescribed burn time — if weather cooperates

Ryan Summerlin
rsummerlin@postindependent.com

The Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit conducted a pair of prescribed burns in the White River National Forest on Friday, though erratic winds and other weather obstacles forced both to be cut short.

The regional unit held burns in Avalanche Creek south of Carbondale and near Battlement Mesa. This unit includes U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management personnel.

Alongside the Forest Service and BLM at Avalanche Creek were the fire protection districts from Carbondale and Snowmass, with a total of 15 individuals and three fire engines working the burn.

The burn plans initially targeted 500 acres to be burned at Avalanche Creek, though only about 90 acres were successfully burned. Likewise, at the Battlements, crews were targeting about 1,500 acres and ended up burning about 250 acres.

The prescribed burn in the Battlement area was an “aerial ignition” with devices being dropped from a helicopter in rugged terrain. Due to cloud cover and fuel conditions, the burn wasn’t consuming as much of fire fuel as was hoped, said Kate Jerman, White River National Forest’s public affairs officer.

Though less than what was hoped for, the Avalanche Creek burn was carried out safely, and considering the wind conditions, fire managers considered the 90-acre burn a success, said Jerman.

Crews continued to monitor the remains of the Avalanche Creek fire over the weekend and found no indications of continued burning.

The regional fire unit will look for another opportunity later this spring to hit more of the Battlement area with a prescribed burn, but they do not anticipate returning to Avalanche Creek this year, she said.

Fire crews at Avalanche Creek took a more traditional approach by igniting sections by hand with drip torches filled with a mix of unleaded gasoline cut with diesel.

Crews kept the Avalanche Creek fire low-burning and controlled, and smoke dispersion was considered successful.

To keep control of such a fire, Jim Genung, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s fuels specialist and the fire boss on this burn, described how crews “burn into the wind,” setting a line of fire near a natural boundary, such as a creek, and letting the wind push the fire into that boundary. From that point crews move into the wind to set new lines of fire, so that the wind will continue to push the fire into the already-burned section where it will naturally die out.

This prescribed burn also utilized Bulldog Creek other natural barriers that the fire wouldn’t pass.

Fire bosses start putting individual burn plans together months advance, prescribing certain conditions, such as fuel moisture content, temperature and wind speeds — the right conditions for a safe and effective burn.

THE RIGHT MOMENT

Fire managers also look for the right conditions so that smoke will disperse, rather than drop into a nearby community, said Genung.

Then, as the early spring approaches, the fire boss monitors weather and wind conditions, waiting for the right time to pull the trigger on a burn.

This time of year offers fire crews a window of opportunity, a time after snowmelt and before the vegetation starts “greening up,” said Jerman.

Though snowmelt came early this year, on many sides of Avalanche Creek the ridges were still topped with some snow, which offers another natural barrier should the burn get out of control.

The Avalanche Creek burn was part of an overall Aspen-Sopris Wildlife Habitat Improvement Plan, which went into effect in 2011. This was the third year of prescribed burns in Avalanche Creek as a part of the 2011 habitat plan.

Over the course of 10 years, this plan aims to hit more than 45,000 acres with prescribed burns and other kinds of treatment. Each year from 1,000-2,000 acres are burned and another 1,000-1,500 acres are “mechanically masticated” as a part of this plan.

The Upper Colorado fire unit may also conduct a prescribed burn on Cattle Creek this fall as a part of the Aspen-Sopris plan.

Likewise, the prescribed burn at Battlement was part of a separate habitat plan for the Rifle Ranger District.

Alongside prescribed burns, these areas are undergoing other types of treatments. Another option is called “mechanical mastication,” which is essentially using machines to slash and grind up vegetation, mimicking a burn, to achieve the same effects.

While mechanized mastication is a precision approach that can clear a particular area effectively, prescribed burns are a cost-effective way of treating a larger area, said Genung.

The Avalanche Creek fire is in wildlands-urban interface, Jerman emphasized. So the fire plan hits Avalanche Creek in small units rather than one big burn.

HELPING WILDLIFE

While one of the plan’s major goals is to improve wildlife habitat, reducing hazardous wildfire fuels adjacent to communities is also an important purpose of these burns, she said.

Bighorn sheep see a big benefit from these projects, as well as mule deer and elk. Bighorns, especially, don’t like to travel through thick vegetation, preferring to stay in the open where they can spot predators.

For thousands of years before modern fire suppression efforts, this area would have seen major burns every 50-75 years, said Genung. So it’s already missed out on two or three natural burn cycles, allowing the mountain brush to grow unnaturally thick.

“We’re trying to put good fire back on the landscape,” he said.

And while each unit in the burn plan is relatively small, when you link all these areas together it makes for a real benefit to wildlife, he said. For example, in the Basalt Mountain area, also burned a couple years ago as part of the Aspen-Sopris habitat plan, thick-growing brush had pushed elk into Missouri Heights, and the prescribed burn on Basalt Mountain was successful in opening the area back up for elk, said Genung.

This is, however, not an overnight solution, as each unit will probably take two to three treatments over a 15-year period to get back to its natural state.

But these burns are awesome for habitat, creating diverse age groups in vegetation and bringing back the fresh, green plant life that animals like to eat, said Genung. “We’re trying to give them back their habitat.”

In about 10-60 days the burned area should start to see some new, nutrient-rich vegetation, said Jerman.