USA — The catastrophic Lower North Fork fire began as a prescribed burn that re-ignited in dry wind and jumped its perimeter, expanding across more than 6 square miles, destroying 27 buildings and killing at least two people.
State forest officials apologized Wednesday, and Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a ban on all prescribed burns on state land until a formal review is done.
But fire authorities insist prescribed fires are required to prevent even worse catastrophes.
The difficulty of fighting super-large fires, such as the 215-square-mile Hayman fire in 2002, and tight federal budgets for firefighting as more homes are built in forests stressed by drought and pine beetle infestations have combined to push land managers toward using prescribed fires to manage the risk.
“Doing a lot of small ones gets us closer to avoiding the big one,” said Rich Homann, fire division supervisor for the Colorado State Forest Service. “It needs to be acknowledged that using fire as a management tool does carry some risk.”
State air-quality officials have issued 225 permits for prescribed fires so far this year. Last year, they granted 402 permits, up 25 percent from 321 in 2007, state data show. Not all of those permits are used.
Over the past few months, hundreds of burns were done in the forests along Colorado’s Front Range.
Fire managers in Boulder County recently completed 600 burns of cut-down trees. Rocky Mountain National Park crews burned 6,000 piles of beetle-killed trees cut from 700 acres.
Over four years, the federal park crews have treated 1,000 acres using prescribed fires, RMNP fire management officer Mike Lewelling said. “Most of our prescribed fire projects are near communities. Prescribed fires are a proven way to reduce wildfire risk.”
Hickenlooper promised a thorough review of conditions across the state, including protocols used during prescribed burns.
The State Forest Service uses fire to revitalize 15,000 acres of watershed owned by Denver Water.
“All decisions related to forest management and treatment on Denver Water property are made by the Colorado State Forest Service,” utility spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said. “Our thoughts are with the families that have been evacuated and those who are working hard to manage the fire.”
Forest managers increasingly rely on prescribed fire in part because federal funding for fire suppression has stayed steady limiting the ability of the Forest Service and other agencies to afford enough air tankers. Tree-thinning to protect communities has emerged as another also expensive option.
Prescribed fire is an important tool, said Skip Smith, Forest and Rangeland Stewardship Department head at Colorado State University, which oversees the State Forest Service.
“Either wait for the big one, or burn fuels under moderate conditions where the fire behavior can be controlled,” Smith said. “If we don’t do hazardous fuel mitigation, then, when a wildfire does burn, it burns with more intensity and is more difficult to suppress.”
Prescribed fires rarely escape. But this month’s conditions proved tricky. Land managers say that, a few weeks ago, they saw ideal conditions for prescribed burns snow leaving soil moist and minimal foliage in trees. Warmer temperatures and high wind over the past two weeks rapidly changed that.
One day last week, 17 private agricultural burns in Boulder County escaped their permitted boundaries, said Jay Stalnacker, the county’s fire management officer, who serves on the Colorado Prescribed Fire Council.
Colorado’s Front Range “is becoming the hotbed for fire,” he said. “The wildland-urban interface. The homes being built in the foothills. The amount of beetle kill. The restoration work that needs to occur. We are set up for disaster.”