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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...