Setting the forest on fire on purpose
The day started at 10 a.m. around a truck bed fully stocked with boxes of discount croissants, a bag of clementines, and a stack of Incident Action Plan packets.
On Sunday morning, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Aspen Fire teams gathered at the Woody Creek Aspen Fire Protection District station for a briefing before the Collins Creek Prescribed Fire, the valley — and the White River National Forest’s — first this year. On Monday, the team will head to Avalanche Creek near Carbondale for another burn.
The crews got an overview on burn scope and safety from the Burn Boss trainee before being sent out to their various stations to set part of the Collins Creek area on fire.
Prescribed burns are meticulously planned and intentionally lit fires. They benefit wildlife by stimulating new vegetation growth and serve as a mitigation tactic against extreme wildfires by burning fuels in the burn area. With innumerable life cycles as practice, the ecosystem is adapted to fire.
“We’re trying to get back to a place that’s more fire-adapted and resilient to the effects of fire,” said Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner.
The prescribed burn came with a $12,000 grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to specifically target the oak brush and low shrubs. The fire burns the surface foliage, but the roots survive, sparking new growth on the land. That new growth is the meal of choice for local fauna such as elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.
But no matter the specific target for a burn, the same benefits are met with each operation.
Warner said those benefits were obvious in the catastrophic Lake Christine Fire of 2018, which burned nearly 13,000 acres in the midvalley.
“The Lake Christine Fire pushed into treatment areas and dropped down to a level that we could get firefighting personnel in there,” said Warner. In untreated areas, Warner said, the fire roared out of the control of fire teams.
Fire has changed a lot in the past few decades from the cultural perception to its behavior. In his more than 25 years of experience, Fire Management Officer Jim Genung said, the change is significant.
“Fires aren’t behaving like they used to,” Genung said. “They’re more extreme in movement.”
Climate change has influenced the intensity of burns and caused crews to face higher risk in the field, he said. And what used to be called a fire season is now a fire year. The work is never done.
As population density increases in rural, fire-prone areas, people are at fault for more and more wildfires, he said.
Around 75% of ignition is naturally-caused, but Genung said that number is going down as density rises and human-caused ignition ticks up. Something as innocent as sparks from a dragging chain or a bottle rocket can cause a fire, as can something more sinister and intentional.
The Grizzly Creek and Lake Christine fires were both human-caused.
After the morning briefing, the Rifle and Eagle Forest Service Engines, two Rifle BLM engines, the Rifle BLM helitack crew, the Rifle White River fire module, the Grand Junction BLM Unaweep fire module, Pike-San Isabel National Forest helicopter and helitack crew, a Twin Falls BLM engine and an Aspen Fire engine dispersed to set up at their various stations for the fire.
The helicopter went out for a recon run, then went out for a test fire to see how the flames and smoke behaved. By 1 p.m. smoke was visible from Highway 82.
Smoke behavior is just as crucial to the operation as whether or not the terrain is catching fire. The crews monitor atmospheric pressure, winds and more to ensure the smoke is carried away from populous areas or somewhere like the airport, where the smoke would impede operations.
Collins Creek is just north of Woody Creek and is challenging to access. That and the wide scope of the burn prompted the Upper Colorado River Interagency to aerially ignite the fire.
A helicopter and Monument Helitack Crew from the Pike-San Isabel National Forest dropped plastic balls, called Plastic Sphere Dispensers, filled with potassium permanganate and injected with glycol from the helicopter down onto the burn area. The chemical reaction catches the plastic on fire, which then spreads to the forest, allowing the crew to ignite from the air along precise boundaries.
For Sunday’s burn, the crew shot for a 50%-70% mortality rate. By keeping some of the foliage in the target area alive, the area maintains a diversity of age in the flora. This “mosaic” approach is better for the long-term health of the forest.
Around 2 p.m., the crew finished the first pass and white smoke plumed up into the sky and blew away from the Roaring Fork Valley. The helicopter came back to refuel and restock on PSDs before heading out for another pass.
UCR crews will monitor smoldering in the burn area up to a few weeks after the fire. But due to the high snowpack and moist spring the area’s seen this season, drawn-out smoldering is not expected.
Sunday’s Collins Creek Prescribed Burn obtained a 1,500-acre smoke permit from the state, which tracks for air quality purposes, and about 723 acres burned.
It is typical to get less than the permitted burn acreage, according to Forest Service Public Information Officer David Boyd. Sometimes not all of a unit, or planned burn area, is available or the crew might not get to part of the area. Or just might not burn as completely as hoped.
To manage the perimeter of a burn, Warner said topography is their best ally. They burn from the top down, burning into a burn. Snowpack acts as a natural border for the fire, keeping it mostly out of the trees, which is why March to May is generally the time of year for prescribed burns.
But, Warner said, the UCR and partners may soon need to consider planning for more prescribed burns within and outside of the March-May window.
Genung agreed. He said that he hopes to see the White River Forest Service double its prescribed burn acreage, from about 6,000 to 12,000, in the next five to 10 years.
The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District covers more than 700,000 acres.
Aside from Monday’s burn at Avalanche Creek, only one other burn is on the calendar for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. If weather permits, Warner said the Forest Service is planning a fire near Braderich Creek.
“We’re trying our best to burn the right amount of fire in the right places,” Warner said.
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