Steamboat Springs Five months after it first sparked, the Mad Creek Fire was declared out Monday by the U.S. Forest Service, while studies done by numerous scientists on the unique blaze provided information to aid future management of forest fires.
"Labor Day was the last time we had someone on the ground controlling the fire," said Kent Foster, zone fire management officer for the Forest Service.
That was also when the fire was declared under control. The last time smoke was spotted from the fire was in late September. However, because the blaze was burning in dense portions of blown-down trees in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, it was impossible to tell if hot spots remained under the timber, Foster said.
"Without getting under every log, we can't be 100 percent sure that it is out," he said.
With a few feet of snow that fell in the area recently, officials felt it reasonable to determine the fire out, but they are still not 100 percent. There are examples in other forests of fires remaining hot through the winter and stoking up to a full-scale blaze come spring or summer.
"It's just natural. We'll check it out in the springtime to see if it will come up again," Foster said.
The blaze started from a lightning strike July 9 in the Routt Divide Blowdown, about 10 miles north of Steamboat Springs, and scorched 1,270 acres of land, according to the Forest Service.
The fire was contained a few days after being discovered. However, a hot spot flared up to a sizable blaze on July 24 and crossed containment lines. On Aug. 8, the Forest Service said the fire wasn't burning, but hot spots remained within the new containment area.
Foster said a number of specialists traveled to Routt County to study the blaze. Burning primarily in patches of downed trees that were blown over by a freak windstorm in 1997 that toppled timber in a 30-by-5-mile area, the Mad Creek Fire was fairly unique and many scientists were interested to see how hot the blaze would get, Foster said.
"We really learned a lot from this fire," he said.
Though it began burning during the warmest time of the year, the blaze didn't get as hot as many expected. The live trees in and around the blaze were in an annual stage of growth, which meant they had absorbed much of the water in the ground. That kept the blaze cooler, Foster said.
An extremely hot fire will damage the soil, making regrowth difficult and causing runoff and flooding problems because the ground won't retain water. This was not the case in the Mad Creek Fire, Foster said.
"It's a good segue on how we are hoping to handle fires in the future," he said.
For firefighter safety, the Forest Service took a monitoring role with the fire, letting natural barriers act as containment lines and allowing larger portions of land to burn. Fire experts have determined this strategy is better for the ecology of the forest instead of trying to suppress fires. But the Fire Management Plan in the Routt National Forest only allows officials to suppress fire in most of the forest, unless there is an issue with firefighter safety. That plan is being updated this winter to allow for some fires to remain active for the good of the forest, Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
"What (the updated plan) will do is allow us to have different areas identified on how we will handle fire," she said.
If a blaze breaks out near an urban area, the Forest Service will suppress it. If one flares up in a wilderness area, forest officials can decide to let it burn and monitor it with intentions of forest improvement, Pipher said.
Now knowing that a July blaze in the Blowdown won't damage the soil, for example, the Forest Service may be inclined to allow future fires in the Routt Divide Blowdown to burn or even prescribe fires there, Foster said.
Public meetings for the management plan are expected to be scheduled for late winter or in the spring.