BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Why do we need to burn the forest?


Q. What does "fuel reduction" in the forest mean and why is it necessary?

A. Fuels include all of the vegetation that is available for fires to burn. This includes grasses, shrubs, small trees, dead trees, dead branches, dead leaves and needles, and the live branches and foliage of larger trees. Fuel reduction simply means removal of some of these fuels so that any fires that do occur in the area are less intense and slower moving.

There are several reasons why it is necessary to reduce fuels. One is that in many areas of the forest we now have unusually high amounts of fuel. This has been recognized for the last decade or so. The fire season we experienced in the West last year highlighted this problem and stirred national interest in responding to the problem. If we do not take action to reduce fuels in key areas then we can expect more fire seasons similar to what occurred last year.

A second reason for fuels treatment is due to the development occurring in and adjacent to our forests. These areas are called wildland urban interface. When fires occur in the interface areas many of the firefighting resources that could be used to suppress or put a fire out need to be committed to protecting houses and other structures at risk.

Q. How many people and how much money will be involved in reducing fuels in the Routt National Forest?

A. This year we will have around 50 people working on the fuels reduction projects to some degree. We have been given a budget of approximately $400,000 this year. Most of these people and the money this year is for planning of fuel reduction projects. Actual on-the-ground fuel reduction actions will start in earnest next spring or summer.

Q. Among the procedures that reportedly will be used to reduce fuels is controlled burning. How much land in the Routt National Forest do you plan to burn and when?

A. Our initial proposals include slightly over 4,000 acres of prescribed burning on the forest. As we get an opportunity to field check these sites this spring and summer we expect that the acreage planned for prescribed burning will change. I believe it is likely that the change will be a reduction in the number of acres planned for burning.

These acreage estimates are just for the four areas we are looking at this year. We expect to look at additional areas in the next several years. These additional areas are likely to include prescribed burning.

The burning will take place over the next five to 10 years.

Q. How will you ensure that the controlled burns do not become uncontrolled as one set by the Park Service in New Mexico did last summer?

A. A number of factors were responsible for the "Cerro Grande Fire" which burned into Los Alamos last summer. Essentially the investigation concluded that federal officials failed to properly plan and implement the prescribed fire. We are now held to a higher standard both in planning prescribed fires and also in implementing them. The net result of this is that we will not light a prescribed fire unless we are confident that the burn can be done safely, that we have enough highly-qualified people to conduct the burn, that the weather conditions at the time of the burn and forecasted into the future are favorable, that interested parties are informed about what is going on and that there is not an undue risk to adjacent property.

However, we can never guarantee that a fire will not escape. We will have a contingency plan in place prior to any burn, ensuring that additional firefighting resources are available if a problem occurs.

Q. Will the burning cause air quality problems or present a health hazard to residents of the Yampa Valley?

A. Air quality is a serious concern. The state has very strict guidelines to protect air quality. We must apply for and receive a permit prior to any prescribed burns. Burning and smoke emissions will be monitored. Where air quality is a concern, we will burn smaller areas, producing less smoke. Burning will be done at times when wind will quickly disperse smoke. Burning piles of material (rather than broadcast burning) will allow us to extend the burning season into the fall and winter, so there will be less accumulation of smoke.

Q. How will burning or other fuel reduction techniques impact recreation in the forest?

A. Obviously, while we are conducting a prescribed burn we need to keep people out of the burn area for safety reasons. Beyond that we do not expect to limit recreational opportunities with any of the treatments. People familiar with an area will notice changes to the appearance, especially in the first few years. Generally, one will notice a more park-like appearance after the treatment is completed.

Q. Will reducing the fuels eliminate the risk of forest fires?

A. We live in a fire-adapted ecosystem. The land depends on fire for renewal of trees and vegetation. We cannot eliminate the risk of forest fires while we still have this type of a forest environment. Fires will still occur in and around these treated areas. Our actions are directed at reducing the intensity of these fires and to slow the spread of these fires.

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