Fighting fire with fire

Forest Service holds prescribed burns

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— People in the Yampa Valley should not fear if they see smoke coming from forest land in the coming weeks. From now through the second week of May, the U.S. Forest Service will be conducting prescribed burns.

The Forest Service can reduce the risk of serious wildfires by using prescribed burns to reduce the amount of deadwood, underbrush, dying trees and other fire fuel on the forest floor and break up the continuity of that fuel.

By creating breaks in the fuel supply, fire intensity would be lessened if a wildfire were to start.

The Forest Service will concentrate burns on 2,000 acres in and around Routt County, including 200-acre patches in the Stagecoach area, Dry Lake, east of Yampa and areas near Kremmling and Walden.

The goal, Prescribed Fire Specialist Mark Cahur said, is to re-create a natural mosaic of vegetation age classes, mimicking what happens as a result of wildfires.

Wildfires occur naturally every 30 to 50 years, creating a patchwork of young and mature forest areas.

Younger, more vigorous trees and vegetation are less susceptible to burning, Cahur said.

But safety concerns and development have led to policies dictating suppression of natural fires. Stopping natural fires protects houses, but it also increases the next fire's damage potential by preventing natural fuel reduction. To reduce that danger, the Forest Service takes advantage of moist spring conditions to reintroduce fire in the forests.

"Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem," Cahur said. "And this way, we have a better opportunity to control it and utilize it."

Fire helps rejuvenate vegetation and improve wildlife habitat in that fire is a trigger for some species of plants to grow and regenerate. Many animals feed on those plants.

Spring is the best time for prescribed fire because the snow acts as a natural barrier, reducing the need for man-made fire lines. Also, spring is a time of high soil moisture content, which limits the chance for damage to soil and boosts vegetative response.

The Forest Service is looking for a "window" of time in which fuel loads are dry enough to burn, but precipitation is in the forecast, Cahur said.

On a day that looks promising, when smoke can disperse quickly, Cahur will get a state permit and give the order to begin burning in the prescribed areas.

The Forest Service will mainly aim for patches of conifers that have large canopies that can quickly conduct a small wildfire into a larger one.

Aspens will be mostly spared in the prescribed burn efforts because they do not have a large canopy and their green wood acts almost as "a natural fire line," Cahur said.

Contingency plans, including having fire trucks ready, are in place if any of the burns get out of control.

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