Huge controlled burn gets valley’s attention |

Huge controlled burn gets valley’s attention

After five years of anxiously waiting, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management finally sparked a controlled burn Monday in the midvalley area called the Crown.

BLM crews torched about 500 acres of dried grasses and oak brush and will burn another 500 acres today if conditions remain favorable, said Winslow Robertson, fire operations specialist with the federal agency.

“With the smoke concerns, we don’t want to burn more than five hundred acres per day,” Robertson said.

The smoke was thick enough Monday that it could be seen in Aspen. The Aspen Times received numerous phone calls from people worried that a wildfire was burning out of control.

The concerns about smoke also required the BLM to wait until winds were coming from the south or southwest to avoid “smoking out Aspen,” Robertson explained. Prevailing winds from the west would typically send smoke to Aspen.

In addition, winds cannot be too high, Robertson said. The BLM doesn’t want to risk a “controlled” burn getting out of control.

“It blows like stink up here,” Robertson noted of typical conditions on the Crown, the land mass between El Jebel and Mount Sopris.

But not Monday. Winds were below 10 mph in the morning and settled in the teens during the afternoon.

The BLM had about 22 people on site, including two crews that were setting fires. Four engines were also available in case fires had to be extinguished.

The fires raised curiosity, if not concern, among midvalley residents. A brown cloud of smoke appeared shortly after noon, then white smoke hovered around through the afternoon.

The Basalt and Rural Fire District received several inquires from curious midvalley residents, according to a spokesman. Conditions have been dry this spring and several controlled burns on ranches have gotten out of hand.

Robertson said the BLM crews experienced no problems.

The controlled burns were sought to use fuels that have been building and could have been ignited by lightning, he said. The burn will also improve wildlife habitat for an area heavily used as winter range by elk.

Crews have actually been prepared to start controlled burns twice in the last five years, but operations were called off because of the risk, according to Robertson.

Although there are only a handful of homes in the area, the number is increasing. Potential threat to structures is a key factor in determining whether to proceed with a controlled burn.

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