The Columbine Ranger District started the first of two prescribed burns Thursday east of Bayfield, taking a careful approach in the area’s hot and dry conditions.
The U.S. Forest Service district started with a half-acre test burn in the Vallecito-Piedra area north of U.S. Highway 160. The two burns, each less than 6,000 acres, are expected to last a week. Operations may continue through October depending on weather and fuel conditions. Prescribed burns keep forests healthy, but morning smoke will be heavier and could have health impacts for some residents.
“The upper end of the prescribed burn is just a little bit too dry to continue” based on the first test burn, said Chris Tipton, fire manager for the Columbine Ranger District. Friday, crews will conduct another test in the southeast section of the 5,771-acre Vallecito-Piedra burn area where fuel is more fire-tolerant.
“We’re trying to validate conditions to see if we’re going to meet burn objectives or it’s still too hot and dry,” Tipton said. “If conditions aren’t right, we are not going to be burning. This isn’t something we take lightly.”
The district gathered about 90 crew members, two hotshot crews, wildland fire modules, engines and heavy equipment for the first burn, Vallecito-Piedra Unit 1, between Beaver Creek Road and First Notch Road in the Bayfield/Pagosa Springs area, he said.
After the Vallecito-Piedra area is complete, crews will start on the Pargin prescribed burn, south of Highway 160 between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs. The last time crews conducted a prescribed burn in the area was in 2016, and the upcoming burn covers less than 5,675 acres, according to a district news release.
Crews will use ground ignition methods, such as drip torches, and aerial methods, such as a helicopter and plastic spear dispensers, to conduct the burn.
Prescribed fires promote forest health. They improve deer and elk habitat by stimulating the growth of grasses and forbs, and they improve the health of ponderosa pine stands by reducing competition from other plants, like Gambel oak, according to the news release.
Prescribed burns also remove ground litter, which helps promote seed germination, and reduce ladder fuels that carry fire into tree canopies, killing mature trees.
However, the Vallecito-Piedra area has a fire deficit, Tipton said. For a forest to be healthy and resilient, it needs to burn every five to 10 years. Although part of the area burned in 2010, the prescribed burn will treat most of it for the first time.
“That’s why it’s so deliberate and calculated in how we time (the burns),” Tipton said.
For residents in the area, smoke could cause some health impacts.
Wood smoke from prescribed burns can be an issue for seniors, young children, pregnant women, people with respiratory or circulatory conditions or infections, or people with smoke allergies, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We take smoke management very, very seriously,” Tipton said. The district is working with the Colorado State Air Pollution Control division and fire meteorologists to monitor smoke impacts.
Smoke from the burns is expected to be heavier in the mornings, lifting and clearing out by midday. Daytime smoke will likely travel north/northeast from the burn area, high in the atmosphere. Nighttime smoke will travel downslope to Beaver Creek drainage, the Piedra River, and south to the Pine River north of Ignacio, the news release said.
People might experience eye, nose and/or throat irritation, difficulty breathing or other symptoms, according to a CDPHE information sheet with tips on minimizing health impacts from wood smoke.
“Nobody likes smoke ... but it’s part of living in the West,” Tipton said. “We have to have fire in these forests to make them healthy and resilient so we don’t lose them in catastrophic fires.”