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‘Beneficial fire helps restore ecological balance, understory, pollinator diversity’

Last month’s Spruce Creek Wildfire on Haycamp Mesa was a promising example of a new era of wildfire management. The Spruce Creek Fire started by lighting ignition May 14 in an area that was scheduled for a prescribed/controlled burn the following week.

Thanks to nearly perfect weather, fire location and personnel availability, San Juan National Forest staff were able to indirectly suppress and work with this beneficial fire, within established control lines to burn and reduce risk on 5,700 acres. Success resulted on many fronts.

Ponderosa pine forests are considered a frequent fire ecosystem, meaning they evolved with reoccurring wildfire. According to a 2019 analysis of fire history research, southwestern Colorado ponderosa pine forests burned, on average, every 18 years up until the 1920s with low to moderate fire intensity the norm.

These forests were historically more open and diverse than today as total fire suppression became policy during the last century.

Fire plays numerous beneficial roles in forest systems, including nutrient recycling, opening areas for regeneration and forage, and reducing understory vegetation’s potential as ladder fuels that enable fire to reach treetops and spread through forest canopies. Beneficial fire helps restore ecological balance, and understory and pollinator diversity. It also reduces overdeveloped fuel loads and the risk of larger, more severe fires to communities, water quality and supply, timber resources and forest habitat.

Working with fire through intentional controlled burns and natural ignitions is a complex endeavor requiring years of planning, public input and preparation. It is not a simple “let it burn” approach. Prescribed burn units often need thinning and control lines established prior to fire. Wind speed and direction, humidity and fuels moisture must be within narrow tolerance ranges.

Personnel and fire crews must be available. Fire managers track community events –doing their best to time prescribed burns according to numerous variables. Socially, land management agencies and communities get to embrace being part of nature as well as a culture of working with fire when conditions are suitable to control.

Living in fire-adapted communities is more than fire mitigation and creating defensible space. It involves accepting fire’s less desirable impacts, such as area closures and smoke – a significant health hazard many of us are familiar with. Accepting fire may ask us to forego an event or outdoor outing. For farmers, ranchers and folks working outdoors, headaches and breathing difficulty can be part of the job. For vulnerable people, staying inside, checking air quality and having an air purifier can help. Smoke from shorter-duration prescribed burns, however, is less risky than smoke from longer duration high-severity wildfires.

Prescribed burning does come with risk. There are instances where prescribed fires have jumped control lines, and firefighters experience significant smoke inhalation. Public opinion can shift. But not reintroducing fire in fire-adapted forests shares a greater risk to the community, especially in our semiarid climate.

I have come to appreciate the privilege and responsibility that comes with living near forests prone to fire. I have also come to know several of the forest and fuels managers that hold a heavy responsibility for stewarding our forests. I am only beginning to understand the complexity of their tasks.

I can say without hesitation that I trust their decades of experience. They have our community’s safety and well-being at the forefront of their decision-making.

Congratulations and, thank you, for your exemplary stewardship of the Spruce Creek Wildfire.

Nina Williams coordinates the Dolores Watersheds Collaborative, an inclusive network of stakeholders focused on forest and watershed health in the upper Dolores and Mancos watersheds.