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Know the West

The burning begins


It's the beginning of April, and fire season in the West has started early, thanks to a warm, dry winter. The Lower North Fork fire south of Denver, Colo. is now about 90 percent contained; so far it's burned more than 4,000 acres and killed three residents. The state's Front Range is suffering through one of the most parched springs in 125 years of record-keeping. The Denver Post reports:

Until saving rain or snow comes, much of the Front Range finds itself in a red zone — the place where homes, woodlands and terrible conditions overlap. Right now, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said, everything east of the Continental Divide and below 8,000 or 9,000 feet is a red zone.

The cause of the wildfire was a controlled burn conducted by state forestry crews; winds pushed burning embers over a containment line. As a result, officials have banned all prescribed fires on state and federal land in Colorado. The ban will last until moister weather makes conditions more favorable for controlled burns – which might mean that none can be lit until late fall.

The irony, of course, is that prescribed burns are one of the most effective ways to thin overgrown trees, improve forest health, and reduce the risk of future high-severity fires. Less than 1 percent of prescribed burns escape control, but when one does, it alarms the public and politicians, who then cite such escapes as a reason to prevent agencies from using controlled burns (see our 2011 story "A Burning Problem"). With prescribed burns on hold, the huge backlog of tinder-dry fuels in the state's forests won't be reduced – which makes another big wildfire even more likely.

Speaking of big wildfires, the pair of cousins charged with causing the largest wildfire in Arizona history (last summer's 538,000-acre Wallow Fire) just pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. Caleb and David Malbouef face a $10,000 fine and up to a year in the slammer for leaving their campfire unattended on a camping trip in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest (before going on a hike, the two had checked to see whether their fire was out using a time-honored method favored by experienced outdoorsmen – the  Gummi Bear wrapper test).

The good news is that the Wallow fire helped thin out vegetation and lessen fire risk across all those acres for decades to come. Proof that burning an area can significantly reduce the damage caused by future wildfires can be seen in a recent 546-acre fire in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. The area had burned 20 years earlier, and with that reduction in tree density, the late-March fire was a beneficial low-severity burn that cleaned up grass and brush but didn't kill most trees.

Meanwhile, in much of the West the potential for wildfires looks to be lower than in last year's record-breaking fire season.  According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, a weakening La Nina cycle and continued drought will mean that Nevada, southern California, most of New Mexico and Arizona, southern Utah, and southwestern Colorado will face above-normal fire potential; the rest of the region will see normal conditions (whatever those are).

If you've got a home in the woods in one of the regions with higher-than-usual fire risk, perhaps you should call your insurance company. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:

New Jersey-based Chubb Insurance has contracted with the nation's largest private firefighting firm -- Wildfire Defense Services out of Montana -- to work with homeowners in 14 states, including New Mexico. Chubb began offering wildfire services to customers in 2008.

Firefighters on the private crews are trained and meet the same requirements as certified firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service, said David Torgerson, president of Wildfire Defense Systems. Many of them already have experience as engine crews and wild-land firefighters.

Chubb has a lot of policyholders around Santa Fe and about 27,000 across the state. The company had teams doing "pre-suppression" around insured homes in Los Alamos during last summer's Las Conchas Fire and Santa Fe during the Pacheco Fire. Pre-suppression can include putting sprinkler systems on or around homes and spraying a fire retardant gel on structures that can be removed after a fire is out.

This year's oddly mild winter has even meant increased fire danger in places like Vermont, whose lush hardwood forests normally have a very low risk of fire. So far in 2012, 310 acres of the state's "asbestos forests" have burned; the usual total for an entire year is 190 acres. 

“You should be extremely prepared,” says Dan Dillner, protection forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Advice that's sort of amusing from a Western perspective, given the comparatively tiny handful of acres involved -- but advice worth heeding no matter where you are.

The author is HCN's managing editor.