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By Doc Watson
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER | In a joint effort of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, there was a “prescribed burn” of some 500-plus acres in the Miller Creek area on May 9, utilizing state-of-the-art equipment, for the two-fold purpose of minimizing fuel in the event of a wildland fire as well as big game enhancement.
In contrast to the term “controlled burn,” which is used for burns on county and private land, this was a “prescribed burn,” an incredibly complex procedure in planning and execution that is designed to “heal the landscape,” said Lynn Lockwood, public information officer for the Forest Service.
Lockwood explained that a prescribed burn “only occurs within certain parameters. That’s part of the reason it’s wait, wait, wait, go! They have to have everything just the way they want it—the right relative humidity, the right fuel conditions, the right weather—and they will only ignite when all those factors align.” Other factors include wind, moisture of the vegetation and even conditions for the dispersal of smoke.
Lathan Johnson—the “Burn Boss”—with 12 years experience in that position, detailed more about the 21-element “burn plan” that is followed for any burn on federal land. It covers not only the above, but also how many resources are on site—such as how many engines there are, how many people they have and communications—as well as contingency plans and much more. The burn plan for this burn filled about 50 pages.
This detailed preparation, in fact, was a recurring theme in interviews. It’s not like someone just lights a match and watches it all burn. On the contrary, the planning and preparation for this one burn actually took years. Such planning also virtually eliminates unforeseen events and unexpected outcomes.
It also “takes a lot of money,” said Curtis Keetch, district ranger for the Forest Service and overall agency administrator for this burn. “We rely a lot on partnerships. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been phenomenal…one of their programs is the Colorado Habitat Partnership Program,” which is funded by the habitat stamps on hunting and fishing licenses. Funding also comes from the Mule Deer Initiative.
Without these partnerships, the job simply could not be done. This one burn will cost between $50,000 and $100,000. While that sounds expensive, “The same size wildland fire would cost more than $1,000,000 and that’s just fire suppression,” said Keetch.
That is one reason why such burns are so important. They greatly reduce fuel that could later feed a wildland fire, potentially endangering people and property. “We are just eating up these fuels in a more controlled setting than a wildland fire in July,” he said. Such burns also have less of an impact on the soil and this early in the season encourage growth of new vegetation.
Lockwood interjected encouragement about safety during the upcoming holiday weekend. The importance of properly extinguishing campfires and taking other precautions cannot be overemphasized. With the lack of snow this past winter, we could be looking “a very active fire season,” Keetch added.
Another reason for prescribed burns is big game enhancement. This burn will “reduce the impact of big game on private land,” Keetch said. “Treating this (with a burn) and getting new, fresh grass to come up will help hold deer and elk on (public) land a lot longer” and thereby help land owners.
One of the unique pieces of equipment on site was the Terra Torch, a compact 50 gallon ground ignition system for lighting fires. It ignites a mixture of gasoline, diesel and two gelling agents and shoots a stream of fire about 50 feet.
The other cutting edge technology was the PSD (Plastic Sphere Dispenser) aerial ignition device mounted in a helicopter. As explained and demonstrated by Rita Clipperton, assistant supervisor on the Helitack crew, thousands of small plastic balls containing potassium permanganate are injected with glycol before being dropped. The exothermic reaction creates a sustained flame for about ten seconds, which ignites ground fuels.
Use of this technology is an enormous advantage. “For bang for your buck, for how fast and efficient you can get it done, compared to having people in there dragging torches all over the slope and how long that takes and hazardous it is,” the expense is more than justified, Clipperton said.
While fire is a destructive force, one we all instinctively fear, a prescribed burn such as this one demonstrates that when properly planned and managed, it is no longer a liability but an asset.
Lockwood’s summation says it best: “These burns are all about planning, partners, and benefits.”