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Prescribed burning: Using fire to create a healthy forest

“Tomorrow they will live again/ Tomorrow fyr will not be fire but that form/ Of a tamed and changing god/ It has been given to none to see without an ancient dread.” — Jorge Louis Borges

The day begins early.

Those on the assignment will gather around 7:30 in the morning, coffee mugs latched to most of their hands. The weather has been carefully watched. The day is calling for slight winds. The moisture is at the right level. It’s time to discuss the burn plan.

“This is really good for wildlife. New growth in the understory, restart the nutrient cycle. It reduces latter fuels,” explains Brandy Richardson, the public information officer trainee for the Pagosa Ranger District.

Prescribed burns, something that has become quite routine over the past 15 years for people in Pagosa Country, were not always routine. It was something that was shunned.

The Forest Service was formed under the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. The mission, in the beginning under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, was simple: to manage the forest reserves. Yet it was forged under fire. In 1910 the USDA Forest Service gained staying momentum from the expansive Great Fire that burned 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, and was responsible for 87 known fatalities.

After the Big Fire of 1910, the U.S. Forest Service changed. It was a more respected agency as far as the public was concerned, and it was agreed across the board that fire in the forest was not a good thing.

“The Out by 10 policy came into play,” Kevin Khung, Pagosa District Ranger, says. The policy means exactly what it sounds like: If a fire was spotted, it needed to be put out by 10 a.m.

“Fire was perceived as ruining trees,” Khung says, adding that in the early 20th century lumber, and protecting that lumber, was of primary importance.

But the strong rule, also led to some to ask this question, “Is a human life worth putting out a fire?” Between 1990-1998, there were 13 wildland firefighter deaths. Between 1999-2009, 222 deaths. In 2009 alone, there were 15 deaths: six aviation, five from heart attack and other medical complications, three driving and one by a hazard tree.

Khung does not hesitate in answering the question, “no,” if the fire is not threatening any human lives. Yet the rules that have been implemented and followed by the government have allowed for deaths.

Also, besides the fatalities that the “Out by 10” rule caused, the natural role of fire was being ignored.

“Now, we see fire as having an important role,” Khung says. This role, according to fire ecologist Roz Wu, plays a natural and important role in the ecology of the forest; and for the last 100 years, it has been suppressed.

“The past Forest Service fire policy of 100 years of suppression has created a fuel bed in the forest,” Wu says. “In drought years, the ponderosa pine forest turns into a tinder box.”

According to a 1999 study completed by Dr. William Romme of Fort Lewis College, there are 280 to 390 trees per acre in San Juan National Forest today versus 40 to 50 trees per acre in 1900. Romme goes on to say that the average tree in 1900 was 27 inches in diameter and would live to be 300 years. Today, 95 percent of the trees are 16 inches in diameter and 110 years or less in age.

This change in forest makeup is in part due to the change in fire frequency. By collecting fire scars from trees dead and living, Romme and other are able to tell when fires historically would occur. A fire scar is a notch or sliver taken from a tree. The piece of tree will show the center ring and all the subsequent rings. When a fire comes through the area, it might damage the tree, burning where an opening of sap was. This will leave a scar.

By studying these fire scars, the average fire between 1685-1872 was once every 10 to 12 years in most of the ponderosa pine forests in the San Juans.

Now, for the health of the forest, to reduce the chance of a catastrophic fire and to put in fire breaks surrounding the wildland urban interface, the forest is being thinned. With a prescribed burn, it is being thinned by fire.

The area most recently burned (last week) was burn unit B — 141 acres in Burns Canyon, chosen because it lies behind the Aspen Springs subdivision. In case a large fire does happen in the area, that road through Burns Canyon would be the escape route for residents. On the east of the unit, a dozer line was put in as a fire break; on the east side, there was a road.

Once upon scene, the rangers are in full uniform: Nomex forest green pants; Nomex school bus yellow, long-sleeve button up; blue back packs with a fire tent and water, the packs embroidered with FSS; gloves, helmets, sunglasses and thick-soled shoes.

The prescribed burn can be complicated and complex; however, when executed, the crew should remain calm, secure in the feeling that they are in control.

The crew is divided into two teams: holding and ignitions. The names are apt descriptions of the team members’ jobs.

Holding keeps the fire within the predetermined bounds. A line will be made along the area, many times with a dozer. The line is a removal of fuels which would allow the fire to keep spreading. Rakes, shovels, dozers, hoses — all might be used to create a fire break. If the fire jumps the line, hops over, the holding crew puts it out. If it’s small, stomping or kicking dirt could do the job. If it is something larger, perhaps a tree on the line has caught fire and the fire has leapt to the tree crown, the water truck will be used. The tree is sprayed, hosed down until the fire is out.

The ignition team makes the burn happen. They light the forest on fire. They bring back the burn. The igniters hold a drip torch — an aluminum canister with a nozzle, looped once, with a torch attached to the end. With a crew member suited up, it looks like the Forest Service has called the pest man. The igniters walk with the drip torch, leaving a trail of fire behind. Depending on the purpose of the burn, the weather conditions, the amount of fuels on the ground, the fire will roar or whimper. It will burn for a day or go out in days.

“It’s a fine line, because you don’t want to burn all the trees,” said the burn boss trainee for the day, Ryan Vincent. The higher the heat, the more it will burn. Typically, the more space between the igniters, the hotter and more intense the fire will be, if the conditions are right for the fire to run.

Depending on how it’s burning, the spacing is changed. The start last week was relatively close, 10 feet apart. Through the duration of igniting, it widened to maybe 40 feet, then went down to 20 feet, fluctuating as to the need of the fire.

“This is thinning by fire,” Vincent says, smiling, as igniters drop lines of fire in front of him.

Prescribed burning, though, is not enjoyed by everyone. While the igniters drop fire, the town below is encapsulated in a smoky haze, especially if the winds aren’t picking up. Richardson explained that if there is too much smoke and too many complaints, ignition will stop.

“Where there’s fire there’s smoke, that’s the first thing that shuts us down,” Wu says. However, she says, while the health conditions that smoke presents are understandable, “We all live in a landscape that evolved with fire. I view it as a routine inconvenience.”

“The forests are unhealthy,” Khung says, and it is the job of the Forest Service to do something. The view of live and let be, of hands-off management, of letting the forest go, untouched, Khung and Wu say is not an option. In the 2002 book “Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal,” authors Stephen F. Arno and Stephen Allison-Bunnell write, “Simply leaving today’s forests alone after a century of fire suppression and forestry focused on extraction of big trees is not caring for them; it is abandonment.”

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