By Laurel Sebastian
Forest Health Education Coordinator, Mountain Studies Institute
While communities both locally and nationally were impacted by large wildfires this year, fires are finally settling down across the nation and firefighters are heading home.
After working and planning all summer, local managers had the resources and conditions necessary to continue important work on prescribed burning in the area. They began burning Saturday, Sept. 8 and worked for two weeks on 5,000 acres in the Saul's Creek and Yellow Jacket area.
After 100 years of suppressing forest fires, land managers have a lot of work to do to restore our forests to healthier and more resilient conditions. Since fire is a natural cycle in a forest ecosystem, managers use prescribed fires to restore fire cycles in controlled conditions. Fire is essential in increasing habitat diversity and removing overstocked fuels (shrubs, trees, and pine needles) that could burn hot and quick during an unplanned wildfire. In addition to keeping communities safer, thinner forests are also less prone to impacts from drought, beetles and disease.
Despite hot and dry summers and longer wildfire seasons, the Forest Service can use meteorology, fire science, and thorough planning to find times to burn safely and minimize smoke. Managers try to burn during favorable windows when conditions include high fuel moisture, higher humidity, and low to moderate winds. Fire teams are skilled at adapting quickly, and when conditions shift or smoke becomes too thick in nearby communities, they will adjust burn plans appropriately.
Unlike usual prescribed burns, this project was a "cooperative burn" and included firefighters and resources from the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Chama Peak Land Alliance, Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Durango Fire and Rescue, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Michigan State University, Southwest Conservation Corps, The Nature Conservancy, Forest Stewards Guild, Mountain Studies Institute and Upper Pine River Fire Protection District.
A Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) was originally planned for this fall, but when fire conditions caused low enrollment and postponement to next year, the San Juan TREX partnership decided to continue to work together to assist with local prescribed burn objectives. The cooperative burn approach, while different from the TREX model, still includes training and learning opportunities for local partners while focusing on completing priority burn units.
Combining resources to complete burn units together strengthens local partnerships and the ability to achieve mutual and individual fire management goals. While this project will target National Forest land, cooperative burning could also include state or private lands in the future.