The Routt National Forest historically has used prescribed burns to improve wildlife habitat and reduce undesirable fuels that have accumulated throughout time. Unfortunately, increased scrutiny of burning activities and narrow windows of opportunity, including managing smoke concerns, have made successful burns difficult to accomplish.
U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns are designed to be manageable under specific weather constraints including temperature, relative humidity and wind speed. It is important to note that they are not “controlled” burns. Occasionally, burns do not go as planned, but contingency plans allow trained professionals to respond to changes and minimize unintended consequences. In 2011, the Routt National Forest accomplished nearly 1,000 acres of habitat improvement and fuels reduction burns without incident, in addition to thousands of slash piles from beetle cleanup activities.
So what does this mean in the bigger picture? The fact is that we have many fuels and habitat challenges to address, and prescribed burning remains one of the Forest Service’s best tools for cost-effective treatment of relatively large blocks of land we are entrusted to manage. Prescribed burns effectively reduce dangerous fuel levels. Additionally, by removing old or decadent vegetation and stimulating palatable grasses and forbs, burns can help maintain or improve rangelands. These are important for Northwest Colorado’s deer and elk herds as well as domestic livestock that are permitted to graze on public lands.
While most burns in the Routt National Forest historically have focused on accomplishing fuels and wildlife objectives, fuels management is becoming increasingly important as each year passes from the onset of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The Forest Service learned from past epidemics that there are three distinct hazard fuel stages following attacks by beetles:
■ First, at approximately three to four years out, there will be a peak in the relative number of dead trees with highly flammable red needles. This is the stage where, under a wider range of weather parameters that may be undesirable, high-intensity wildland fires will have the potential to burn relatively large acreages throughout short periods of time.
■ The second stage occurs between approximately four to six years and consists primarily of standing trees that have cast their needles. Without needles in the canopy, most fires simply will consume accumulated fine fuels left on the ground with little consequence.
■ Between six and 20 years, the third and final stage is characterized by an extended increase in surface fuel loading as dead trees fall and new trees begin replacing them. This stage unfortunately has the potential for the most unmanageable and damaging wildland fires. Because these fires are difficult to manage and because fuels close to the ground generate heat for extended periods of time, the risk of soil sterilization and watershed damage is increased.
Routt National Forest managers will have opportunities to consider the use of prescribed fire or managing natural wildland fires in each of these stages. However, while there will be opportunities for using fire as a tool to manage our growing fuels challenge, there is no single solution to this issue. Because of the vast acreages and complexities that will have to be managed, our efforts will require a sustained mix of mechanical, prescribed and managed fire treatments as well as increased public understanding and support.
Larry Sandoval is the public affairs specialist for the Routt National Forest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-745-2420.