Hayman Fire

The Hayman Fire, Colorado’s largest wildfire, burned down to the soil. “It will take centuries” for the Ponderosa pines that were lost “to regenerate, if they ever do,” CSU associate geography professor Jason Sibold said. “It’s very hard for seedlings to become reestablished in that area.” (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The smoke arrived at just the wrong time — if you were attending an outdoor music festival, that is, and mistook the haze for the presence of a wildfire.

As San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper put it “there was some concern” about the smoky skies on Sept. 13, the first day of Telluride’s last music festival of the summer, Blues & Brews.

There was unquestionably a fire in the vicinity, but it was on purpose. The smoke was part of a so-called prescribed burn taking place on a preordained, 705-acre sector of the Uncompahgre Plateau, located nine miles southeast of Norwood, which made it visible in this region.

Specifically, stands of Ponderosa pine, pinyon-juniper and Gamble oak were ablaze in a slow-burning fire that had been set deliberately by fire crews from the Norwood District of the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison (GMUG) national forests. And while the burn might have been misperceived by many, from the perspective of GMUG fire crews — and scientists who study the health of forests — the operation was a success. As a press release that summed up the operation described it, “This slow-moving, non-torching fire helped crews accomplish their project objectives of improving vegetative regeneration, tree-stand health (and) wildlife habitat” while reducing the buildup of hazardous fuels.

“Prescribed fire is fantastic,” said Jason Sibold, an associate professor of geography at Colorado State University who studies forests in this region.

“The thinking about how to fight wildfires started to change around the year 2000,” Sibold explained, “when the climate started to shift” and wildfires got bigger. (The Hayman Fire, which began outside Colorado Springs on June 8, 2002, went on to torch 138,114 acres and became the biggest wildfire in the state’s history.)

“All of a sudden, we realized: We’ve gotten much better at spotting fires, we’re more organized about fighting them, we understand a lot more about where they’re expected to take place, and for how long,” he said.  

Scientific knowledge had even progressed to the point “that we knew how long the lengths of the flames would be,” Sibold said. “And still, even with all the money and technology we were throwing at them, we were losing. The number of acres consumed by wildfires was growing every year.”

Clearly, a new method was needed to staunch wildfires in advance of them becoming conflagrations. As Sibold put it, “If we could suppress the fuels that fires needed to grow, we could protect communities.”

One way to do that was “by going in and cutting and thinning a forest,” Sibold explained. “But native species aren’t adapted to the mechanical treatment of landscapes — to mulching, or massive land mowers, or to a chainsaw coming in and thinning out a stand of trees. They are, however, adapted to fires.”

That is where the idea of a prescribed burn comes in, a process that occurs on a set amount of acreage, and burns for a predetermined amount of time. A fire that is controlled, “and that returns the natural processes to the landscape,” as Sibold put it, “so when the big wildfires come” — which they are likely to in a warming world — they won’t have as much fuel, and will take place in a setting that has already primed for them. Such a small, controlled fire not only won’t be nearly as destructive; it will actually help the natural habitat to regenerate.

“We don’t want a large-scale, high-severity fire,” Sibold said simply. “That is detrimental ecologically. It will have big impacts on our watershed, when you convert from one type of habitat to another.”

Presribed burns don’t work everywhere, Sibold cautioned, but in lower-elevation places like the Uncompahgre Plateau, “where there are ponderosa pine and Douglas fir-type forests” — which is exactly where local fire crews have been starting them — a forest benefits greatly from a prescribed burn.

“These are the types of places that burn more frequently,” at 50-70 year intervals, Sibold said. By applying smaller fires to sections of these landscapes, “we hopefully set the stage so when the big fires come, they promote biodiversity.” With smaller fires, “You can control the flames. You can steer it and shape it try to get the ecological outcomes that you want. We have thousands and thousands of acres of forest that could use some fire and some nudging back from where it is today.”

Indeed, there is another prescribed fire on 400 acres set for Oct. 7, in the so-called Calamity Basin area (travelers heading for Gateway Resort and Unaweep Canyon, be forewarned). The smoke will likely be visible from Highway 141, as well as National Forest Service Road 402 (Divide Road), Road 404 (Uranium Road) and Road 405 (Niche Road), according to a news release. For the latest on prescribed burns, call the Forest Service’s fire information hotline at 970-884-6602, go to fs.usda/gmug, or check out the GMUG’s Facebook or Twitter.