Western Slope fires key to new national guidelines

Bureau of Land Management firefighters work to snuff out a hot spot Thursday at the Water Creek Fire on the Roan Plateau.


Important fires

• The Storm King Mountain Fire near Glenwood Springs, which killed 14 firefighters in 1994, prompted a massive revision in firefighting policy.

• The Jordan Fire northwest of Meeker.

• The Grand Complex Fire, a set of fires that included the Coal Creek Fire in the Kannah Creek area on the flank of the Grand Mesa.

The latter two fires, in 2008, helped fire managers revise their recently rewritten policy and erase the distinction between the goals of either suppressing a fire or letting it burn for forest management reasons. Safety and ecology are now two of many factors in wildfire management.

When crews responded to the Water Creek Fire on the Roan Plateau near Rifle last weekend, they brought with them lessons from past western Colorado wildfires that have been applied nationally.

In one case, the lessons came the hard way, through tragedy. The more recent experiences have been positive for wildfire managers as they tested new approaches to wildfire management. Those approaches were figured into a 2009 policy revision for wildland firefighting nationwide.

“A wildfire can be managed for multiple objectives. That’s the change,” said Ken Kerr, state fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Colorado.

That said, it’s a lot more complicated trying to explain the latest evolution to federal wildland fire policy, Kerr said. But it represents ongoing efforts to follow policy objectives established during a major rewrite in 1995, which was the result of the death of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs the previous year.

“That fire caused a major shift and relook at federal fire policy,” Kerr said.

Chief among the revisions was that firefighter safety would be the top priority. Another key part of the new policy is recognition of fire as an essential ecological process that can help clear out dead and overgrown vegetation, encourage new growth, improve wildlife habitat and reduce dangerous fuel buildup.

Over the years, fire managers recognized the importance of such fires by managing some incidents as “fire use” fires, with the goal being to benefit from fires rather than put them out. A distinction was made between these and “suppression fires,” where extinguishing them was the goal.

Today, partly as a result of how fires near Meeker and Grand Junction were handled in 2008, that distinction was dropped. Wildfires are simply wildfires, and how they are managed is dictated by a vast range of factors, such as firefighter and public safety, risk evaluation, ecological benefits, the land management plan for the area in question, and the reality of limited resources to fight fires.

Fire use vs. suppression

A fire can be managed different ways on its different borders. Management also can change over time as conditions such as weather, fuel conditions and the fire’s behavior change.

While historically some fires were easily categorized as “fire use” fires, and others as suppression fires, in some cases the distinction was less clear, Kerr said. For example, managing fires for ecological benefits sometimes also required strong suppression efforts at key spots, such as where structures need protection.

In an effort to test a clarification of policy, several interagency fire management units across the country volunteered a few years ago to conduct pilot projects. Among them were the Upper Colorado and Northwest Colorado units.

They got their chance in 2008. In the Jordan Fire near Meeker, fire managers decided to actively fight the fire on its eastern side, where homes were threatened. On the west side was a wilderness study area where the fire could be beneficial, however, so suppression wasn’t deemed necessary there.

The same year, fire struck in the Kannah Creek area on the slopes of Grand Mesa. Here again, the fire was seen to have some ecological value in clearing out built-up fuel. But it also was managed within certain limits in an attempt to protect Grand Junction’s municipal watershed, keep the fire from reaching the mesa top and threatening structures, and minimize smoke in the Grand Valley.

“That was a big test of the policy, and it was a good test of the policy here in this state,” Kerr said.

He said western Colorado fire managers passed on lessons learned to the national level, helping lead to the policy revision the next year.

One result of the change has been to simplify accounting and cost reimbursement for post-fire rehabilitation work. While such work theoretically shouldn’t be necessary for fires managed for ecological value, the fact that fires aren’t always so easy to categorize had complicated the task of getting rehabilitation funding where it was warranted. Today, that’s no longer an issue.

The revised approach also helps fire managers be mindful of the uppermost goal of firefighter safety. On incidents such as the Water Creek Fire, rugged terrain and dead trees that have fallen or are still standing create serious safety hazards for firefighters.

“We’re not going to risk a lot for a bunch of dead trees,” Russell Long, a fire management officer for Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management, said as he watched the fire’s progress Thursday.

Prepared to act quickly

Officials also don’t see a point to spending a lot of tax dollars and allocating sparse firefighter resources fighting a fire that doesn’t threaten nearby structures and can do the landscape some good.

At the same time, fire crews have monitored the fire with the intent of being able to act quickly where warranted. They don’t want it doing things such as spilling over the mesa top into inhabited valleys below. When winds Thursday created a dozen or so spot fires across a creek they had identified as a preferable northern boundary, crews sprung into action to put out those fires.

For the most part, though, the fire hasn’t shown an inclination to spread from heavy timber into aspen forest and sagebrush meadows. As a result, fire managers think it will remain within some natural boundaries, possibly burning in beneficial fashion for weeks to come.

Meanwhile, a special fire team is on the scene continually monitoring meteorological conditions, fire behavior and other factors to help predict the fire’s behavior. Their remote operation includes weather stations, computers, and even an oven they can use to measure moisture levels of vegetation by comparing weights before and after heating.

Chris Deets was leading a fire monitoring team from Vernal, Utah, on Thursday, but like others on the fire scene, he dropped what he was doing and grabbed a hand tool to help fight the spot fires, reflecting the flexibility in how this fire is being managed.

“The biggest thing is we’re firefighters first. That’s our first job,” he said after those fires had been subdued and he and others kept an eye on things from a jeep track, returning to monitoring mode.


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