Forest Service officials say wildland fire near Rifle presents opportunity to manage rather than snuff
FOREST AND FIRE
The White River National Forest has about 2.3 million acres. Below is the number of acres and percentage in each Forest Management Unit regarding fire:
• 9,000 or less than 1% is designated as not desirable for fire at all
• 280,000 or 12% has resource concerns and potentially high economic impacts from unplanned ignitions
• 930,000 or 40% has wildland fire as a desirable component of the ecosystem with minimal mitigation requirements. This includes the Middle Mamm terrain.
• 1,070,000 or 47 percent is designated as having fire as a desired condition.
Source: White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office.
A wildfire 10 miles south of Rifle has provided officials with the White River National Forest a rare opportunity to manage a naturally ignited fire to the benefit of wildlife and forest health.
The Middle Mamm Fire was started by a lightning strike July 28. Fire officials said Friday it has grown slowly and at low intensity to cover 250 acres as of Thursday.
White River National Forest Deputy Supervisor Lisa Stoeffler said Forest Service staff and fire specialists decided to manage the fire rather than immediately extinguish it. The circumstances surrounding the fire met numerous criteria that the Forest Service has established to use fire to the advantage of forest health, she said.
“It was a fairly remote fire,” she said. “We knew we had time to talk about it (without facing a threat to resources). No one was going to get to it fast.”
One of the big criteria is the absence of residences, cabins, other structures and infrastructure in the path of the fire. It is becoming increasingly rare as the region grows to have a fire without a risk to values, Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said. Parts of the forest abut developed area, called the wildland-urban interface, where fire would put homes and infrastructure at risk.
“You can’t swing a cat by the tail without hitting something like that,” he said.
Places where fire wouldn’t create a risk, such as designated wilderness, tend to be higher elevation and less susceptible, so far, to widespread fires.
The closest values to the Middle Mamm Fire are oil and gas infrastructure roughly 1.5 miles away, according to the forest’s top officials.
Forest planning documents map areas where fire would pose limited to no risk to values such as structures or infrastructure. If a fire starts in that type of terrain, the White River staff runs through a gamut of additional criteria to determine the reaction. Those include assessments of the fuel type and potential for the fire to grow, current and predicted weather conditions, and the current and expected availability of resources to fight the fire.
Timing is key. If the Middle Mamm Fire started in early July rather than late in the month, the firefighting would likely be more aggressive, Stoeffler said. That’s because the fire would have a better chance to grow during the hot weather of mid-July. Fall is on the horizon, so cooler and wetter weather will slow the fire’s growth and winter will eventually snuff it.
“It’s all about conditions,” Stoeffler said.
The rate of growth and intensity of the fire also are important factors. If the fire instantly blew up to 1,000 acres, the firefighting would have been more aggressive, Fitzwilliams said. The fire has slowly grown and has been in the 200-plus range for some time, he said.
There also would be more public and political pressure to fight a larger fire more aggressively.
“At 200 acres, there’s a tolerance level,” Fitzwilliams said. “At 1,000 acres that changes.”
Forest officials also had the advantage of knowing this was a moderate fire season nationally and locally, so that firefighting resources are plentiful, should they be needed. Fitzwilliams said fire managers assured him firefighters would be available should the need arise.
The Forest Service isn’t taking a simple let-it-burn stance. A type 3 incident command team from the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire and Aviation Management Unit is monitoring the fire with 58 personnel and a helicopter. They have used water bucket drops in recent days to direct fire behavior.
Managing the fire also has to provide a benefit.
In the case of Middle Mamm, it’s burning through conifer and aspen stands that include lots of dead and downed trees. Managing its growth will reduce the fuel load and create a firebreak that could prove useful in preventing a catastrophic fire in the future, Fitzwilliams said. Clearing forest also will benefit wildlife by creating openings for grasses.
“It’s not just fire for fire’s sake,” Stoeffler said. “It’s fire for real life benefits.”
The Middle Mamm Creek terrain is in a designated roadless area. Firefighters would need to hike in and be dropped off by air to fight the fire. There is no access by road. That creates potential risks for firefighters — another factor in the decision to manage rather than extinguish.
Managing a fire only works when the actions are transparent and communication is effective, Fitzwilliams and Stoeffler said.
Fire managers and Forest Service are holding a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Annex to provide an update on the progress and outlook of the fire.
“The meeting will address fire management strategies and objectives specific to the Middle Mamm Fire, and provide opportunities to ask questions of fire managers and Forest Service officials,” said a statement from the incident command team.
Fitzwilliams said his office must have strong rationale for managing the fire rather than putting it out. He is confident of their decision and said the process wasn’t “willy-nilly.”
“If things go wrong, they come to talk to Lisa and I really quickly,” he said. “It’s one of the things I dream about — what if things go bad.”
It’s not a decision taken lightly, Stoeffler agreed. “These are gut-wrenching decisions.”