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Little Sand Fire: Behind the smoke

“Our patience will achieve more than our force.” — Edmund Burke

A thunderstorm comes rolling in. The smell of rain puts smiles on people’s faces. Lightning strikes, it hits a dry tree, makes a spark. Just like that, a forest fire is born.

For a while, it burns almost unnoticed by the average public. A few light plumes of smoke are visible to some and, to others, not at all.

Then, as time passes, rain stays at bay. Dry conditions increase. Winds pick up. The fire spreads at an unanticipated rate. The amount of U.S. Forest Service driving up and down the roads increases. A helicopter is seen in the air. Hundreds have come to battle a fire, a town has sprung up where once only forest and campsites existed. Smoke blows into town. Almost everyone is aware of the fire, and a questions looms in people’s minds — why hasn’t this fire been put out yet?

Forester Steve Hartvigsen said that he has heard several comments and questions during public meetings regarding why the Forest Service does not simply dump enough water and fire retardant to douse the Little Sand Fire now burning in the Piedra area.

“If you don’t back that up with ground resources, it’s a waste,” said Richard Bustamante, fire management officer.

District Ranger Kevin Khung said that at one spot, a couple of acres big, an entire afternoon was spent dumping water on it, to no avail. The water dried, the embers remained, and the fire did not go out. “The tree acts as an umbrella,” Khung explained, keeping all but the crown of the tree quite dry. “To be successful you have to make mud,” Khung said, meaning that water left on the surface will be evaporated and essentially noneffective in battling fires.

“This has been a different type of fire,” Pagosa Ranger District Fuels Forester Scott Wagner explained. “We are waiting for it to come to a point of control and watching it back down to the river (Piedra). It’s backing down to a much cooler and easier to manage position.”

The most effective tool during this fire, Khung and Wagner agree, has been patience.

“We can’t put dozer lines on the steep slopes,” Khung said. “A lot of it is waiting.” And the patience in waiting is key. To maintain calm, to keep aware of the fire behavior, to remain analytical, and most of all, Khung said, is to know where action will be successful.

“We don’t put fires out,” Khung explained, to which Wagner added, it is large weather events that will put the fire out.

The Little Sand Creek fire was started on May 13 due to lightning sparking a tree. In years past, the U.S. Forest Service’s national policy would have been to put that fire out immediately, no matter the level of firefighter safety hazard.

Wagner explained that this changed in 1997, when the Pagosa Ranger District developed, and was able to implement its first prescription burn plan. It was during this year that districts were allowed to manage fires for resource benefit. In the past, Wagner explained, firefighters were sent in to battle high risk fires in forest that did not have particularly valuable resources. It should also be noted that since the Forest Service is a federal agency, it does not fall under Gov. John Hickenlooper’s banning of state prescribed fires.

The Little Sand Creek fire is in an area with steep slopes, limiting how the firefighters could respond. The area also, Hartvigsen explained, is, overall, benefitting from the burn.

“The key thing,” said Hartvigsen, “is the fire’s mostly staying on the ground. It’s an understory burn and is largely consuming dry fuels on the forest floor which has brought up the grass, grass that is still green under pine needle litter cover... It’s doing what fire is supposed to do.”

In the Piedra area, over 15,000 acres had been planned for multiple prescription burns in the next several years.

Hartvigsen anticipates that due to the nitrogen that is released after a burn, the understories in the Little Sand Creek will flourish and be rejuvenated.

“Wildlife will flock there,” Hartvigsen added.

However, the fact that there will be some ecological benefits to the fire is not the sole reason the Forest Service had managed the fire in the way that it has.

Khung explained that there are three main guidelines when assessing, and daily reassessing, forest fire management: values at risk, firefighter safety and public safety. Is the area wildland urban interface? What is the terrain like? Is there a timber sale? Are there endangered species? Powerlines? Ranger allotments? Recreation? Special use permits?

Different maps will be made of the area, data will be inputted into the mapping program and the potential turns the fire may take, which is not 100 percent accurate. Data considered and inputted will be fuels moisture levels, weather forecasts, terrain, tree mortality, and more. Khung said a management action point, or box, is drawn around the fire area. If the fire progresses to certain points on the map, different action steps will be taken by the district.

The wind events of Saturday, May 26 were not predicted. High winds were forecasted, Khung said, but not to the speed of 70 miles per hour, which did happen that day. That day, the fire spread, hit the limits of the box, and management steps were taken. After that, meetings were increased to six or more a day, all revolving around the fire. The fire management plan is decided and then retooled and reassessed. In addition to the technology available, there is the vast experience of the Forest Service crews.

“The process is full of checks and balances,” Khung said.

The strategy taken by the wildland firefighters is not necessarily a direct attack.

“Some areas, we allow the fire to come to us. Where can we be most successful, most effective?” Khung said, adding, “We don’t set up for danger or for failure.”

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