Basalt Mtn. burn snuffed

Scott Condon
A view of the prescribed burn on Basalt Mountain, April 27, 2004. The burn was conducted by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and involved about 125 acres. Conditions hampered plans as 542 acres were originally planned to be burned. Aspen Times photo/ Nick Saucier.

A controlled burn on public lands on the shoulder of Basalt Mountain was a little too controlled for federal firefighters yesterday.

Efforts to start a blaze fizzled due to wet conditions. Firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management initially planned to burn 1,000 acres. The target was scaled back to 542 acres yesterday morning because higher slopes on the western side of Basalt Mountain still had snow.

But crews had trouble keeping any brush and vegetation lit. Between 100 and 125 acres was ultimately burned before crews called it quits.

“It really wasn’t burning hot enough, and the fuels were really wet,” said Kristi Ponozzo, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

There were no plans to burn today because a weather front was coming in, she said. It’s uncertain whether the project will proceed at a later date.

Brenda Wilmore, the “burn boss” on the project for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, said Basalt Mountain was targeted to improve forage for wildlife and reduce fuels that could feed a wildfire.

Just a couple of miles away from the burn site were the scars of the Panorama fire, which tore through Missouri Heights in summer 2002 and destroyed two homes and damaged two others. Charred trunks of oak brush still litter large parts of the burn path.

Crews set out to methodically burn the 542 acres of a steep hillside in a safe manner yesterday afternoon. They used a wide, gravel forest road and a conifer grove as the upper break to stop the fire. Ignitor teams using mixtures of diesel fuel and gasoline walked about 50 feet downslope and splashed the mixture into the oak brush to try to get fires going.

The plan was to have the crews walk horizontally lighting fires, then get trailed by other crews about 50 feet lower. That way, the crews would control how much vegetation was burning at any one time, Wilmore said.

But the vegetation just wouldn’t ignite very well. The fires produced a lot of smoke where the fuel mixture was dropped but the flames didn’t spread, according to reports from the field crews.

The fire couldn’t be set in March, which was unusually dry, because there was still snow in the target area, which is between 7,500 and 8,500 feet in elevation. April has been wetter than average so the ideal burn conditions quickly disappeared. Now the vegetation on the hillside may “green up” and eliminate the opportunity for a burn, Wilmore said.

A total of 3,000 acres was supposed to be burned over the next two springs.

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