Rangers tread tricky path when deciding to let fires burn

Rangers tread tricky path when deciding to let fires burn

24 August 2013

published by http://durangoherald.com

USA — Every time a lightning storm rumbles through a forest, the rangers in charge have to decide how to handle the multitude of little fires that start: Smother them quickly, or let them burn out naturally.

But it’s not always a simple choice between two options.

Often, the crew that first responds to a lightning strike will decide on the spot to put the fire out. But if the fire is too remote to reach, or there are too many little fires burning at the same time, decisions get kicked up the chain of command to a duty officer, the district ranger or the forest supervisor.

“I can’t give you a cookbook-type answer. There’s discretion. There’s professional judgment,” said Dan Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest.

Each national forest develops fire-management plans in advance to identify swaths of land where a fire would be welcome. But Forest Service officers also have to look at the weather and the availability of crews to monitor a fire.

The conditions aligned for Dallas this summer on the Ox Cart Fire, a blaze he wanted to let burn for resource benefits. He got permission from Regional Forester Dan Jirón in Golden, the senior Forest Service officer in a five-state area.

Until last year, Dallas would have had the authority to make the call himself, as the forest supervisor.

But in May 2012, James Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service, declared that only regional foresters could approve managing a fire for resource benefits, instead of putting it out as fast as possible.

“I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long-run,” Hubbard wrote in his memo.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell somewhat softened that policy this February in his “letter of intent” for the 2013 fire season, but he still warned that officers who want to let a fire burn will be held to the strictest performance standards.

Dallas got permission to let the Ox Cart Fire smolder on the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, south of Salida.

Mike Blakeman, the spokesman for Rio Grande National Forest, spent several days in Salida talking about the blaze and the smoke it was emitting.

“It sat there for three, almost four weeks and didn’t grow significantly,” Dallas said.

Then one afternoon, it blew up a bowl on the mountain and burned 1,000 acres.

He would have preferred to let it go some more, but the big burn happened at the same time as the West Fork Complex blowup, which sent up a smoke column that was visible from Denver.

With the eyes of the country fixed on his forest, Dallas decided to put out the fire.

When fires get big enough, local foresters will call in an incident management team and delegate authority for the blaze. That’s what Dallas did with the Ox Cart Fire.

The incident team had the fire under control in five days.

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