Planned burn on Basalt Mountain scorched 1,100 acres, captured attention | AspenTimes.com

Planned burn on Basalt Mountain scorched 1,100 acres, captured attention

A prescribed burn went so well Sunday that it charred almost the entire targeted acreage of national forest in the midvalley and sent so much smoke billowing into the air that some people assumed it was out of control, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Monday.

The fire was intentionally set on national forest and Bureau of Land Management property on the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain, above the populated areas of Missouri Heights. The goal was to burn 1,200 acres. The preliminary estimate is that it burned 1,100 acres, Fitzwilliams said.

"It accomplished everything and more," he said. It created a nice, mosaic pattern where vegetation was burned on one clump of ground but the grasses, oak brush and juniper in an adjacent cluster were untouched. The fire also carried into higher elevations into stands of aspen trees.

Veteran federal firefighters with Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management were amazed that conditions were so dry, according to Fitzwilliams. They said they have rarely seen spring conditions where the fire intensity was similar to fall, when the ground and vegetation dries out.

The fire started pumping plumes of smoke into the air in the late morning. It was visible from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. Dark smoke occasionally soared when the fire consumed oak brush, juniper trees and other heavier fuels. Other times, thick, white smoke arose when lighter fuels were consumed. Flames were visible from Missouri Heights and the valley floor Sunday night.

Curious onlookers checked out the fire from their vehicles at every pull-off along Upper Cattle Creek Road, and others drove to where fire fighters closed off Basalt Mountain Road to the public during the operation. Some nearby homeowners were nervous.

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"They were convinced it was out of control," Fitzwilliams said. About 35 firefighters from the federal agency and Basalt Fire Department were stationed on the mountain. They used natural firebreaks and scratched additional ones where needed. They prevented the fire from creeping below the management perimeter, Fitzwilliams said.

"We weren't going to lose this fire in any way, shape or form," he said.

Forest Service personnel used the event as a way of educating people about the benefits of prescribed burns. The fire removed fuels from the mountainside and improved wildlife habitat by removing decadent vegetation. New growth of trees will be spurred where the aspens burned, for example, and grasses will come in where brush burned out.

"We answered a million questions," Fitzwilliams said.

The firefighters used a helicopter to ignite the blaze. Spheres the size of a ping-pong ball were filled with potassium permanganate and dropped from a dispenser on the side of the chopper. The spheres are stored in a hopper at the top of the dispenser. Before they drop, they move through a tube where a needle injects them with a water-glycol solution similar to antifreeze. The chemical mixture makes the sphere combustible, and the recipe can be altered to control the amount of time it takes for a sphere to ignite, according to the Forest Service.

It is more efficient but also more costly to use a helicopter, Fitzwilliams said. Crews felt that was the best option since they were working in steep terrain covered in thick vegetation in some areas.

The estimated cost of the operation was $40,000, Fitzwilliams said. The Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation paid for the operation.

Firefighters remain on the scene. The Forest Service issued a statement Monday assuring Missouri Heights residents that they are safe.

The statement read: "We will continue to have crews monitoring it every day until it is completely out. Residents in the Missouri Heights area will likely see smoke and possibly flames for the next couple days. There is some active fire burning slowly in the aspen stands. But the fire is progressing uphill where there is considerable snow and moist conditions. The fire remains in the management boundary — it is burning exactly where we want it to."

scondon@aspentimes.com