That big plume of white smoke in Eastern La Plata County can be unnverving for area residents, but it's an important part of controlling future wildfires in the area, as well as improving big game habitat.
That's the message U.S. Forest Service employees shared with area politicians and employees on Friday during the second day of aerial ignition of the Pargin Prescribed Burn. Staff and visitors met on Relay Station Road off U.S. Highway 160 to survey the prescribed burn.
The burn, centered around Pargin Mountain in the HD Mountains, will cover 6,000 acres by Sunday. Crews burned 19 miles of the fire's perimeter last week, then aerial ignition of the interior started on Thursday and should conclude Saturday.
Staff have been planning the burn for months, and 90 people have been working on it at different times this week, said Matt Janowiak, the district ranger for the San Juan National Forest.
While the term "aerial ignition" brings to mind flaming balls falling from the sky, that's not exactly what happens, explained Jodi Mallozzi, fire prevention officer for the Pagosa Ranger District.
A three-person crew in a small helicopter drops the spheres over the burn area through a plastic sphere dispenser. The white balls, which are a little smaller than a Ping Pong ball, contain potassium permanganate. The dispenser has three chutes which oscillate, dropping four balls at a time. Before they drop, a needle injects glycol, or antifreeze, into the spheres. An exothermic reaction between the substances starts ignition when the spheres hit the ground.
The helicopter carries a pilot; an operator who runs the dispensing machine; and a firing boss, who directs where the spheres should be dropped.
The spheres are dropped first on the top of ridgetops, then the helicopter works down to the bottom of drainages, Mallozzi explained. The crews are working on creating small, slow burns, not a big conflagration "that nukes a hill," she said.
The forest service has a state permit for three days of aerial ignition. Monitors are on the nearby Vance Ranch and in Arboles to measure the smoke released in the fire.
For a prescribed burn, a laundry list of variables has to be in place, Mallozzi added. That includes temperature, humidity, winds and other factors.
The other difficult aspect of this fire is a complexity, location and remoteness of the area, explained Chris Tipton. Even though U.S. 160 runs to the north, the rugged terrain is a challenge for crews and equipment.
The prescribed burn is part of a series of fires that have been planned over the past six years from Saul's Creek to Fossett Gulch to Pargin Mountain. This area was chosen this year because of the homes and ranches in the area and infrastructure such as powerlines, relay stations and the highway.
"We also want to improve the habitat for wildlife," Tipton said.
The burn is a partnership between private landowners, where 35 acres of land is being burned, along with the state, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Last year's Yellowjacket Prescribed Burn covered about 5,000 acres, so this year's will double that area. Ideally, Tipton said the district should burn about 10,000 acres a year to improve the forest health and ecosystem. Hundreds of years ago, fires burned through this area every three to seven years, he explained, clearing oak brush and burning pine needles, leaves and other fuels.
After 100 years of fire suppression, however, those fuels have built up, leading to the massive wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the west.
The prescribed burns are the best ways to prevent those huge blazes, Tipton said. The district has them planned through 2030 in the hope that they can improve the ecosystem in the next 10 to 15 years.
Tipton said he understands the prescribed burns are tough on some people.
"This is scary," he said, gesturing to the dozens of smoke plumes rising from nearby mountains. "We get that."
His agency is paying for a motel room in Durango for one elderly resident who lives inside the burn area.
Public meetings and letters to landowners are used to tell people about the fire, and Tipton said if a neighbor wants to come try a drip torch, the small burners that ignite the perimeter of a fire, he welcomes that.
"We want to be completely transparent and open," so the public knows what's going on during the burns.
Another benefit of prescribed burns is that staff can control the smoke, which they can't do during a wildfire, noted Ann Bond, a spokeswoman for the forest service. With rain forecast for Sunday and Monday, staffers are hoping the air should be clearer by next week.
The forest service works closely with the State of Colorado to plan prescribed burns and to monitor and manage the impacts of resulting smoke, she noted.
For more information, contact the Columbine District Office at 884-2512, or visit http://fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.
Daily updates will also be posted at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov and on Twitter @SanJuanNF.