Agency planning burns

Fuel loads building up in forest

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— For the past five years, forest officials have been discovering that suppressing fires on public lands allows dead trees and dry underbrush to pile up to dangerous levels.

With that in mind, the U.S. Forest Service has been given money to pay for efforts to reduce those fuel loads on public lands that butt up against urban areas. Locally, it will mean cleaning up primarily by burning 2,732 acres around Steamboat Springs and 2,177 acres near Stagecoach. Areas that also need fuel reduction have been identified near Gould and Kremmling as well.

The actual work won't happen for another year or so, which will be none too soon for local forest officials.

For much of the country, the doctrine of putting out and in effect, postponing fires ended last summer when 7 million acres of public and private land in the United States burned, Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said. In Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park was scorched in a massive wildfire.

A primary reason the blazes got out of control and burned so much land was all that fuel that had built up under the trees thanks to suppression efforts, explained Forest Service fire suppression team leader Andy Cadenhead.

Downed timber, for example, has increased through the years. And when a fire starts in an area where there is plenty of toppled trees, it can quickly build to an intense blaze that hops from treetop to treetop and is difficult to put out.

"The conditions in which that could happen is pretty random," Forest Service fuels specialist Glenn Webb said. "It could take 50 years. But the one time it does happen, it could be pretty critical."

Through the $1.8 billion National Fire Plan, a recently funded mandate from the U.S. Congress, the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest received an initial $400,000 to plan fuel-reduction efforts.

"We've been told to expect to see this kind of funding for five years," Cadenhead said.

After that, the Forest Service is expected to continue receiving smaller amounts of funding for another five years to do fuel reduction.

Pipher said fuel-reduction efforts will include controlled burns, thinning, mowing brush or removing younger trees in a mature tree stand. Officials will decide which technique will be most effective in each area.

Around Steamboat, which is being called the "Dry Lake Analysis Area," the land that will be cleaned up runs from the north side of the Steamboat Ski Area, through Buffalo Pass and stretching west toward Elk River Road through Copper Ridge. In Stagecoach, the area is near Morrison Creek.

Controlled burning is likely to be the main technique used to reduce fuels, Cadenhead said.

"Smoke management will be a real issue," he said.

All that burning near urban areas and near wilderness areas, where air quality standards are strict will create smoke that will be a challenge for the Forest Service to deal with, Cadenhead admitted.

That is why intense controlled burns are not for certain. In the next year, forest officials will determine the best plan to reduce fuels and then begin implementing it, probably in April 2002.

In the meantime, the Forest Service will hold public meetings to inform people of the National Fire Plan and the planned fuel reductions.

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