Wildland Fire Use: Too hot to handle?

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Reprinted with permission of Forest Magazine

During the summer of 2003, the Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center took a call from Vallecito, a small resort community northeast of Durango and surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. Residents had spotted flames in the mountains above town.

“It put us in the mode of, ‘Here we go again; it’s going to come down the canyon and burn us out this time’,” says Jay Powell, a summer resident.

His fears were justified. The previous summer, the town had been evacuated for more than two weeks when the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge Fire roared from Durango to Vallecito, burning dozens of homes to the ground.

But what the community saw as a threat, Allen Farnsworth, a San Juan fire-mitigation specialist, saw as an opportunity. From a reconnaissance flight the following day, Farnsworth spotted eight acres burning from a lightning strike six miles north of Vallecito Reservoir. The Bear Creek Fire was at 9,800 feet and inside the boundaries of the Weminuche Wilderness.

Unlike the destructive Missionary Ridge Fire, it had ignited at a higher elevation, in less flammable forests and at a time of lower fire danger. To Farnworth, the Bear Creek Fire looked like it could do some good in the high country without endangering Vallecito.

“Missionary Ridge had burned all the way around the community, so it was well buffered,” Farnsworth says. “In addition, there were natural barriers, like rock outcroppings and aspen stands, to slow it down if it moved south.”

Farnsworth thought Bear Creek was a good candidate for Wildland Fire Use, a firefighting strategy that allows for management or containment of certain fires, as opposed to immediate suppression. The goal is to allow a natural fire regime to return to some forests that have been deprived of fire for more than a century by all-out suppression. Proponents contend it’s the wave of the future; opponents call it madness.

The Bear Creek Fire qualified for Wildland Fire Use because it was naturally caused and did not threaten a populated area. “In addition, sufficient firefighting resources were available nearby, fire danger was moderate, the weather forecast was favorable, and the fire was ignited inside wilderness,” says Farnsworth, who has experience managing some two dozen similar fires across the West.

It was also burning at high elevation in sub-alpine forests dominated by Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir, where the climate is cool and moist from a snowpack that lingers for up to eight months each year. Relative humidity is often high, and large dead logs that pile up on the forest floor rarely dry out enough to burn.

“Because fire is so rare, I believe its effect to be ecologically significant in these sub-alpine forests,” says Rosalind Wu, a San Juan fire ecologist. “Unlike our lower-elevation forests, dry conditions don’t occur in the spruce-fire forests very often, and many centuries can pass between major fires.

“Any fire that occurs in the spruce-fir would still be an ecologically healthy fire,” Wu says.

Window of opportunity

Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles got the next aerial view of the fire. From what he saw, he, too, felt that a narrow window of opportunity had opened.

Conditions were dry enough for the sub-alpine forest to burn, but not dry enough for the fire to become dangerous. At 28 acres, Bear Creek was officially tagged for Wildland Fire Use. Local firefighters staffed posts, and a specially trained team from Bandelier National Park in New Mexico was called to assist.

Stiles based a large part of his decision on firefighter safety. The Bear Creek Fire was burning in rough, inaccessible terrain. He felt it would be unsafe to put firefighters on its northern boundary high in the wilderness. “Managing fire to allow for its natural role may turn out to be one of the single most important steps in ensuring firefighter safety,” he says. “Our thought processes are more focused because we don’t go in with such a feeling of urgency.”

But Vallecito residents were feeling a sense of urgency. Pam Wilson, San Juan fire information officer, set up an information center to field their questions.

“We knew it was going to be controversial from the start,” Wilson says. “I knew what these people had gone through the year before with the Missionary Ridge Fire, and I had to try to convince them that the Bear Creek Fire would be a benefit to them in the future.”

Vallecito is a small community set on the shores of a high-elevation reservoir. The Weminuche Wilderness boundary abuts the edge of town, and high peaks and forests dominate views. The economy revolves around summer tourism; the winter population of 500 swells to about 1,500 in the summer.

It’s an idyllic setting that prior to the Missionary Ridge Fire had not experienced a wildfire for perhaps more than a century. As a result, the possibility of fire was not what most people saw when they looked at the surrounding national forest, which supports both their quality of life and their economy.

“Many people come here because they love the scenery, like the aspen turning color in fall,” Stiles says. “Very few realize that when they see large patches of aspen, the process that created the natural beauty that drew them to the area is the very thing they don’t want to live with: fire.”

“People who live in places where there is more fire seem to adapt their lifestyles and thinking,” says Ron Klatt, the San Juan’s Columbine Ranger District fire-management officer. “Around Vallecito, fire had happened so infrequently that people were too distant from the reality.”

As the Bear Creek Fire grew slowly in the wilderness, it was closely monitored. Crews stood ready to build fire lines, if necessary.

The U.S. Forest Service continued to reassure residents and visitors that there was no threat to private property, but people were still on edge. “It was a visceral reaction to the fact that there was another fire on the hill just a year after Missionary Ridge,” Klatt says. “They remembered they’d been out of their homes, living in motels or with friends, and that their businesses were totally shut down for the bulk of the season.”

It was also a typical reaction to what seems like an about-face by the agency to its usual message that all fires are bad and should be put out. Vallecito resident Powell had fought fires in the 1950s in Grand Teton National Park. “It was, ‘Put all the resources on it and put it out the minute you find it’,” he says. Like his neighbors, he found it hard to accept that the Forest Service was not trying to put this fire out.

Out of the frying pan

On the fourth day, the situation changed as the wind shifted, pushing flames southeast into a large clearcut. The area had been considered a barrier to the fire’s spread because of its lush green meadows and limited reforestation, but it was also dotted with old slash piles of burnable fuel. The wind sent sparks flying, and in a few hours, the fire grew tenfold. A Forest Service road and a wilderness trail were closed, and containment was ordered on the southeastern edge.

“Its spreading south was not outside what we had contemplated, and we were prepared, but what happened was on the extreme end of what we thought was likely,” Stiles says.

The unexpected winds lasted only one afternoon. Stiles decided to continue to manage the Bear Creek Fire under Wildland Fire Use. When it was upgraded to a higher level of complexity Incident Commander Bill Clark and the Great Basin Fire Use Management Team arrived from Idaho to take charge.

“I don’t know of too many line officers who would have stuck by that decision, but it was appropriate,” Clark says. “We have a long way to go internally to learn how to deal with fire in a proactive, rather than reactive, mode. The culture that I and every other (incident commander) were raised in is that all-out-control philosophy.”

Clark is one of the founders of Wildland Fire Use, which wasn’t formally recognized as part of the national interagency firefighting program until 1998. After 33 years of fighting fires, he says, managing a fire through containment strategies, as opposed to attacking it with full suppression, is like the difference between playing chess and playing checkers.

“It’s the hardest mental task I’ve undertaken,” he says. “People think we just let them burn, but we have to constantly stay out ahead of a fire instead of just hammering it into the ground. We assess the changing threats on a daily basis so that we can design mitigation measures in advance to lower the risks.”

However, the choice is rare. In the past six years, of 678 wildland fires that occurred on the San Juan National Forest and adjacent BLM land, only 45, less than 7 percent, were managed under Wildland Fire Use. A recent New York Times article reported that only 110 of more than 10,000 wildfires in national forests last year were allowed to burn naturally.

“While the percentage may seem small, Wildland Fire Use is growing every year as fire managers, resource specialists and concerned citizens learn more about the interconnections between ecosystem health, firefighter safety and the rising costs of fire suppression,” Clark says.

Can’t stand the heat?

When Clark took over, the Bear Creek Fire had grown to 1,363 acres. More than 250 firefighters had been assigned to the team’s command, with an air tanker and two helicopters offering air support. Clark had walked into a complex situation.

Emotions became more and more charged, and the controversy was elevated from a local arena to a national one. In a letter to Foreest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell expressed his concern: “It seems to me that allowing small naturally caused fires to grow into thousands of acres before containing them defies common sense and is a huge misuse of taxpayers’ money.”

Jerry Williams, Forest Service director of fire and aviation management, wrote back: “Our strategy is to halt the fire’s spread in areas closest to the community while allowing it to continue moving northward, further into Wilderness under close scrutiny. We believe our decision … is responsible and cost-effective.”

Neither Stiles nor Clark was pressured to change their tactics of suppressing 30 percent of the fire’s southern permiter while allowing it to work its way north into the wilderness on the other 70 percent. The team continued its work.

Where there’s smoke

The biggest issue for Vallecito was the smoke. Because of topography, smoke from the fire funneled down a deep canyon, settling in the valley at night and lingering until midmorning.

“Smoke is where the public, without choice, has to live with the impacts of Wildland Fire Use,” says Sarah Gallup, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment field liaison sent to assess the situation. “Smoke is a symbol of fire that triggers all the physical and emotional responses we have to fire, and those people at Vallecito had been tapped out the year before.”

She installed particulate monitors in the community to monitor air quality. Although airborne-particulate levels were higher during the Bear Creek Fire than Gallup had seen during prescribed burns, they didn’t violate health standards. But smoke sensitivities vary, and even with air quality within acceptable levels, some Vallecito residents suffered from smoke allergies and respiratory problems.

“We just kept our home shut up as tight as we could,” Powell says. “That was hard on my wife because she loves the fresh air and light. I’m asthmatic myself, and it’s pretty hard to tell people like me it’s the best time in 50 years to let it burn.”

In the hot seat

Wilson, the San Juan information officer, was charged with breaking that difficult news. Starting at the fire’s outbreak, she and her staff worked 12-hour shifts to help the community understand what the Forest Service was trying to accomplish.

“It was the most difficult and challenging assignment of my career,” she says. “Emotions were high, and there was economic trauma; one woman came into the information center every day in tears.”

Wilson coordinated several community meetings so residents could speak directly with fire managers. Meetings were crowded and confrontational.

“People really did get emotional, and there was a lot of upset and hollering,” says Marilyn McCord, a year-round resident. “The sense was of the community being fractured; people were on edge and fragile.”

“When you put out a fire, people have signs calling you a hero,” Klatt says. “During Bear Creek, people consistently gave us one-finger salutes when we drove by in our trucks.”

Much of the emotion was based on the bottom line. Visitors were canceling reservations at local lodges during the peak of tourist season.

“People kept calling and asking, ‘Is the smoke gone?’” Powell says. “If they were here, they left when the smoke started settling down into the valley every night. Nobody wanted to breathe the smoke, even if they were reassured the fire wouldn’t get them.”

Stiles offered to call guests who were canceling reservations. He got only one request to do so and wasn’t able to appease the woman on the other end of the line.

“She said that if I couldn’t promise her there wouldn’t be a fire within 100 miles of Vallecito, they couldn’t come. I told her I couldn’t promise her that because we hadn’t had a situation like that in the last three years.”

Clark’s team tried to offset the economic impacts. Firefighters ate meals at local restaurants when possible. (The Forest Service must use a national catering contract when personnel numbers reach a certain point.) The overhead crew, truck drivers, helicopter pilots, flight crews and mechanics stayed in local motels. Everyone bought gas at local stations.

“We appreciated it,” Powell says, “but it couldn’t make up for people canceling reservations.”

Dying embers

After about two weeks, the Bear Creek Fire stabilized and things in Vallecito calmed down. Clark’s team transitioned out, leaving local fire officials to monitor the site. The fire was officially declared out in mid-September, leaving behind the kind of natural mosaic that makes an ecologist smile and an incident commander proud.

“There was high tree mortality, but grasses and forbs survived,” Wu says. “Fire intensity was high, with flame lengths of 50 to 100 feet, but fire severity was relatively low, in that ground vegetation was left intact, and soils were mostly lightly burned.”

“Outside of the politics, it was a beautiful fire that closed the only hole around that community where the Missionary Ridge Fire didn’t burn,” Clark says.

Final size: 1,869 acres. Final cost: $1.2 million; four minor firefighting injuries.

The Durango Herald conducted a survey on its website asking, “Should the USFS allow wildfires, like the Bear Creek Fire, to burn?” Almost 70 percent of 1,672 respondents answered yes.

But the report card remains mixed. “We need to be able to use this tool in areas like Bear Creek, where we can actually help restore a natural ecological process while making a community safer,” Farnsworth says. “But this may have come too close on the heels of the Missionary Ridge Fire. That community had a tough couple of years.”

Vallecito residents also have mixed emotions.

“You can’t answer it in black and white,” says McCord. “But once the fire was started by lightning, I think it was the right thing to take advantage of it to get rid of the downed timber.”

“Most people still don’t think it was a good decision,” Powell says. “A high percentage of them are still plumb mad at the Forest Service.”

In reviewing the Bear Creek Fire as a lesson in the practicality of implementing Wildland Fire Use, officials argue that ensuring firefighter safety, encouraging the evolution of firefighting methods and reintroducing fire’s natural role override the social impacts.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Klatt says. “We spend a lot of money and put a lot of young people at risk trying to totally suppress every single fire.”

And no one disputes that for the Forest Service to be successful, the public must be included in the evolution of thought and action. For that to happen, residents of the West still need to think of fire and smoke in much the same way they think of rain and snow – as inevitable and necessary forces of nature.

“The question is, What is man’s role in dealing with fire?” Stiles says. “Should you interfere with all of them and put them out? Or should you try to allow certain fires to accomplish a natural role? If you’re only worried about the next 50 years, then the answer is to interfere, but if you project into the future, perhaps Wildland Fire Use is the answer.”

Ann Bond is an information specialist with the San Juan National Forest/ San Juan Resource Area.

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From June 2004.