Fight fire with fire

Forest Service completes plan for prescribed burns to reduce wildfire damage

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— The U.S. Forest Service has decided on a fire prevention plan that includes prescribed burns on 206 acres of land surrounding Steamboat Springs in the next three to five years but private landowner participation is needed to ensure complete protection from wildfire.

The plan, called the Dry Lake Fuel Reduction Project, is the product of the federally mandated National Fire Plan, which filtered $1.8 billion through public land management agencies to help fund projects to help prevent wildfires from damaging private property. That was done after 7 million acres of public land in the United States burned in the summer of 2000 causing millions of dollars of damage to private property.

Two large areas in the Dry Lake project will make up most of the land included in the prescribed burns. These areas include a 110-acre piece of land outlining the north side of Soda Creek and 70 acres northwest of the drainage from Rocky Peak, just north of Strawberry Park Hot Springs. The smallest burn area is about 30 acres, just north of Spring Creek.

Some landowners around those areas were concerned with the abundant amount of run-off that could be caused by the burning, said Kent Foster, zone fire management officer for the Forest Service.

"That's a valid concern," he said.

However, prescribed burns in the spring burn cooler than wildfires in the dry months, reducing some of the sediment runoff that fire can create, Foster said. Also, moving the burn sites away from the drainages should help solve run-off problems.

All the prescribed burns are on south or southwest facing slopes, which have the most sun exposure. The idea, Foster said, is to burn in the spring on places where the snow has melted first. The snow surrounding those spots then acts as a natural barrier, helping ensure the fire stays in control.

Burning will only be conducted when the weather is perfect low wind, high moisture and air conditions that would carry the smoke out of the valley, Foster said.

The public also will be invited to watch the prescribed burns to learn how safety measures are followed.

The decision to burn the 206 acres, announced on Feb. 15, is 133 acres less than originally proposed last year.

"Because of public concern, we reduced the acres of burning and increased the number of acres for mechanical treatment," Foster said.

A 28-acre piece of land just off Burgess Creek road will be cut and cleared of gamble oak and other volatile shrubs instead of having a prescribed burn because the proximity to private homes.

Once the land is cleared which reduces the risk of a prescribed burned getting out of control Foster said officials might decide to burn there in the future to start the regeneration of the forest that fire creates. He admitted that it was a conservative approach but one that reduces the risk of prescribed burn getting out of control.

Another piece of land, about 84 acres about two-miles south of Strawberry Park, will not be burned because it is adjacent to a Bureau of Land Management parcel. The Forest Service will work with the BLM on a prescribe burn in the future.

In all, 135 acres will be mechanically treated. Plus, another 83 acres, near the lower parking lot on County Road 38 going up Buffalo Pass, will be cut and made available to the public for firewood.

The philosophy behind the burning and clearing is to create breaks in the forest where fires would stop before entering into an urban area. But it's not a panacea for those hoping for complete protection, Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale said.

"It's going to address the issue on the forest side of land. Now we have to get the private landowner interested in mitigation," he said.

The National Fire Plan has made grant money available through the Colorado State Forest for private landowners to thin overgrowth and dry fuels on their land. Only then will wildfire protection be complete, Vale said.

"It's not going to be an easy task but we are going to try to get it done," he said.

A similar Forest Service plan has been proposed in the Stagecoach area and will be decided on in the spring. Landowners there also are being asked to look into grant money through the Colorado State Forest.

The period to petition the Dry Lake project is open until the middle of April. If no petitions come in, Foster said work could begin this spring.

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