Prescribed burns tame the beast


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Ten days after the Hayman fire erupted southwest of Denver, Colo., and began spreading to the north and east, firefighters finally found a place where they could stand their ground: Polhemus Gulch. Weeks earlier, firefighters there gained the upper hand against the Schoonover Fire; now they found that the area allowed them to hold back the bigger, badder Hayman Fire.

"When the fire was headed there, we were all very hopeful that the fire would lie down," says Barb Timmock, spokeswoman for the Pike and San Isabel national forests. "And that's just what it did."

The reason, says Timmock, was that the Forest Service had already intentionally burned the area the previous fall. Because so much of the fuel in the forest had already been consumed, the Hayman Fire just crept along the forest floor, singeing - but sparing - 80-foot mature ponderosa pines, which have the potential to ignite into extremely hot and violent crown fires. Since the fire stuck to ground duff and grasses, firefighters' efforts to contain it were safe, straightforward, and effective. So far, Polhemus Gulch, the site of the largest intentional prescribed burn ever in Colorado, has more than proven its worth.

"The fire is still moving into (the Polhemus Gulch burn area), but it's just creeping," says Fire Behavior Analyst Jim Hutton out of the northern Incident Command Post for the Hayman Fire at Castle Rock. "It's safe to get in there."

The same thing happened on the northwestern edge of the 16,000-acre Manitou Experimental Forest, just north of Woodland Park, Colo. There, biologists have been tree-thinning and intentionally burning sections of the forest for the last 50 years to maintain forest health and avoid catastrophic wildfires. The result: When the Hayman Fire blew into the forest, the blaze quickly ran out of fuel, and died down. Firefighters were able to contain it after it had burned only 600 acres.

The Polhemus Gulch prescribed burn, at 8,000 acres, comprised almost half of the total 20,000 acres that the Forest Service intentionally burned last year in Colorado. Not only was it unusually large, it was also unusually drawn out. Officials planned to begin the burn 12 years ago, but poor conditions continually delayed most of the burn until the end of last year, and brought the total cost to $800,000. Now, of course, it seems that the work was a bargain, and done just in the nick of time.

"There's just way too much fuel in the forest," says Randy Myers, owner of the M Lazy C Ranch, which is half a mile from Hayman township, where the fire started. "I wish they had burnt more."

But not all residents share that wish. Timmock says that during October and November of last year, when the Forest Service was burning the Polhemus Gulch area, residents in the nearby towns of Deckers and Trumbull complained for months of smoky air conditions. She says that metro Denver residents, downwind of the burn "had to endure some uncomfortable situations."

The success of the Polhemus Gulch prescribed burn could bolster the Forest Service's plan to expand prescribed burning, which took a hit two years ago when the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos, N.M., which began as a controlled burn in the Bandelier National Monument, blazed out of control, (HCN, 6/5/00: The West's hottest question: How to burn what's bound to burn). By 2010, the Forest Service hopes to triple its annual nationwide burning to 3 million acres. The annual price-tag of that expansion would be in the tens of millions of dollars, far less, fire managers say, than the cost of a huge fire like Hayman, which, as of June 27, was already estimated by the Forest Service at more than $50 million in damages.

"With all the structures in the woods out there, prescribed fires are going to have to happen," says Hutton. "We're going to have to eat smoke in the winter, or else we're going to have more destructive fires like this one."


Jon Waldman is an HCN intern.

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