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Crews hope to expand wildfire near Dolores to 4,000 acres

Spruce Creek Fire has burned 10 acres in an area prepped for prescribed burn
The Spruce Creek Fire is burning northeast of Dolores in the San Juan National Forest. Firefighters are using roads as containment lines, and hope to expand the footprint of the 10-acre fire next week. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

Fire managers plan to expand the footprint of a 10-acre lightning-caused wildfire burning northeast of Dolores on the Haycamp Mesa next week, and could burn upward of 4,500 acres.

Last month, the Dolores Ranger District announced plans to burn 4,577 acres across Haycamp Mesa Units 5, 6 and 9. Fire managers plan to use existing roads as fire lines within which they would contain the blaze.

The Spruce Creek Fire started Tuesday afternoon along the northern perimeter of Unit 5.

“It’s all prepped and ready to go, conditions are ideal,” said Pat Seekins, prescribed fire and fuels program manager for the San Juan National Forest. “It’s low-intensity surface fire, it’s doing exactly what we need it to do.”

If the weather continues to cooperate, fire managers hope to burn between 4,000 and 5,000 acres. Seekins said crews have prepared around 5,600 acres to burn.

Firing operations are expected to begin Tuesday with the oversight of a Type 3 Incident Management Team, and should wrap up Friday if all goes as planned.

The Dolores Ranger District had planned prescribed burns for three areas in the spring of 2024, including the Haycamp Mesa where the Spruce Creek fire started on Tuesday, May 14. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

The ponderosa pine and aspen forest carpeted with a gambel oak understory is acclimated to a natural fire cycle that moves through the landscape every 10 to 15 years. Wildfires naturally clear out the accumulated oak scrub and thick mats of pine needles.

But the Haycamp Mesa has not seen fire in at least 40 years.

“That area, Haycamp Mesa, (has) very little fire history and really needs some fire in there,” Seekins said.

The strategy of using naturally occurring wildfires for hazardous fuels reduction – a policy that officials refer to as “indirect containment,” as opposed to the more incendiary “let it burn” label that detractors have coined – is relatively new in practice on the San Juan National Forest.

As trust grows within the agency and among members of the public, officials are keeping their eyes open for ways to leverage wildfires for good.

Last year, fire managers used three natural blazes that began inside units already prepped for treatment to return fire to the landscape in the San Juan National Forest. With the help of firefighters, those three wildfires ultimately treated 4,000 acres of forest.

Pat Seekins, the prescribed fire and fuels program manager for the San Juan National Forest, in the burn scar of the Dry Lake Fire, which burned east of Bayfield in summer 2023. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

To treat over 4,500 acres of forest, as Seekins hopes to do next week, would make a noteworthy dent in the minimum 30,000 acres that need to burn annually on the forest to catch up with the natural fire cycle.

Fire managers will take planning one day at a time, spokesman Andy Lyon cautioned.

“With prescribed fire this spring, we’ve accomplished just shy of 4,000 acres, which is good – we’ve had a good spring,” Seekins said. “But we’re taking this opportunity to expand those acres.”

The SJNF will post updated information on the fire at inciweb.wildfire.gov/incident-information/cosjf-2024-spruce-creek-com.

rschafir@durangoherald.com



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