OPINION: Fighting western wildfires

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William Perry Pendley

RBC | It is the height of fire season in the American West, with temperatures at triple-digits across the Great Basin and lightning-ladened monsoons sweeping the arid landscape. Thus, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and interagency, state and local allies are fighting wildfires to protect natural resources, neighbors, and livelihoods. 

The Trump administration fast-tracked hiring during the Pandemic to put nearly 3,000 BLM firefighters on the line fighting blazes as early as this spring in Florida, Alaska, and Arizona. The BLM’s work did not begin this year, however. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s active forest management executive order and actions by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, agencies across the Department of the Interior cleared vast acreages of hazardous fuels that, left untreated, might have become infernos. 

Charged with treating 750,000 acres in Executive Order 13855, Interior cleared over 1.4 million acres last year, a ten year high. That work began anew last fall, winter, and, thanks to late arriving snows in the Rocky Mountain high country, continued deep into the spring and even early summer.   

Meanwhile, the BLM applies innovative approaches to fire, including as a land management tool, much as did American Indians long before European settlers. One such effort was put to the test last September, when, on a hot, dry, late summer day, lightning lit off a fire in rugged, remote, dense vegetation southwest of Meeker. An agricultural community in northwestern Colorado, Meeker lies halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City. Normally, the BLM would rush to extinguish the blaze—known as the Hunt Fire—but not this time.

BLM Field Manager Kent Walter and Assistant Field Manager Kyle Arnold say the lightning struck in a perfect location. First, the rugged terrain and thick vegetation put firefighter safety at risk. Second, the area had not burned in years and a fire would remove dense vegetation. Third, there were no ranch houses, oil and gas operations or other valuable facilities. 

Earlier Arnold teamed with firefighters, Rio Blanco County, Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the Douglas Creek and White River Conservation Districts, adjacent private land owners, oil and gas operators, Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Meeker and Rangely Volunteer Fire Departments, and the Rio Blanco County Road & Bridge Department to prepare them for this day. All must work closely together to keep the fire within a 32,359-acre area to protect isolated historic cabins and energy facilities.

Two days later, hot, dry weather led to intense fire activity; heavy smoke was visible on well-traveled I-70. Four days later, with unrelenting hot, dry weather, the fire grew to 2,570 acres. More than once, Arnold exchanged anxious looks with his leadership. The stakes were high and not just for historic and commercial properties in the fire’s path. So too was the future of fire as a management tool. Suddenly, however, the fire stopped spreading. 

The BLM’s work was not complete. Firefighters prepared for burnout operations using existing barriers and openings and then ignited new fires that consumed available fuels between the main body of the fire and the carefully planned outer perimeter. Soon, all fire activity was minimal. In mid-October, the first snow fell; the Hunt Fire was out after burning 3,766 acres. 

The Hunt Fire burned in a patchy, mosaic pattern creating diversity on the landscape with newly created openings to provide increased forage for wildlife and livestock for decades, while the unburned patches of trees and shrubs continue to provide cover. 

Sally Lou Johnson, a rancher whose BLM grazing allotment was within the fire perimeter, declared: “The brush and trees in that area are so overgrown, it’s difficult to get animals into and out, and the junipers are so thick that hardly any grass grows under them.” No more. “The firefighters have been terrific. They saved every one of the livestock troughs along Big Jimmy Ridge.”

Mike Swaro, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said, “The fire will reset the successional stage with the burned area, allowing for growth of grasses and forbs in the first year or two after the fire, which will bring in the elk. Within a few years, shrubs will begin to re-sprout, improving browse for deer. The mix of habitat types, with open meadows and woodlands will be beneficial for big game species and hunters alike.”

It may be too soon to tell, but come fall, thanks to the Trump administration’s active wildfire management, the hunting should be great on the BLM’s land near Meeker. 

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Pendley is Deputy Director for Policy and Programs of the Bureau of Land Management.