Burning near Los Alamos

We have not heard very much about prescribed fires or fire use fires at Bandelier National Monument since the disastrous Cerro Grande fire of 2000, which began as a prescribed fire then escaped and burned 235 homes in Los Alamos, New Mexico. This interesting article from Fire Engineering describes a fire use fire at Bandelier and has quotes from Dick Bahr and Tom Nichols, who both work for the National Park Service in Boise. Here is an excerpt.

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By STACI MATLOCK

Last July, people in Los Alamos and Santa Fe looked toward Bandelier National Monument and saw smoke in the air.

Rather than stomp the lightning-caused San Miguel Fire out quickly, Bandelier National Monument let it burn, a counterintuitive move for an agency that only nine years prior had set the blaze destined to became one of the most destructive fires in recent memory. But it was an example of just how much fire management has changed in the last few decades.

Bandelier’s superintendent, Jason Lott, let the San Miguel Fire burn because the weather conditions were right. Fire resources were available if the park’s fire staff needed help, and the fire occurred in an area park staff had already mapped out as needing treatment to reduce flammable forest material. The San Miguel Wildland Fire burned 1,635 acres in the park and Santa Fe National Forest. It left behind patches of burned and unburned vegetation, exactly what forest ecologists like to see. Bandelier’s fire staff only tamped down the fire when it threatened cultural resources or entered risky areas. “Our goal is to allow lightning-ignited fires to burn naturally within fire-adapted ecosystems when we can do so safely, effectively and efficiently,” said Lott at the time.

In centuries past, nature took care of periodically cleaning house in Bandelier and other southwestern forests, sending fire through every 10 to 25 years to kill weak trees and reduce plant debris on the forest floor. Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of ancient native people setting fires to stimulate grass growth.

Then, after the 1871 fire in Peshtigo, Wis., that killed more than 1,000 people, and the Great Fire of 1910 that burned more than 3 million acres in Washington, Montana and Idaho and killed 78 firefighters, wildfire became an enemy to be stopped. From the early to mid-1900s, fire suppression, grazing and logging interrupted the cycle. Western forests became dense and overgrown. “We’ve changed the landscape so that it doesn’t necessarily function as it traditionally did,” said Richard Bahr, lead fire ecologist for the National Park Service in Boise, Idaho.

Bahr said land managers began letting fires burn out naturally again after the 1960s. They were easier to control because the climate was moister and cooler through the 1980s.

Then three factors combined to make forest fires more complicated and more expensive to fight, Bahr said: millions of acres of overgrown forests, more people living in them and a drier, warmer climate.

Tom Nichols, chief of fire and aviation for the National Park Service in Boise, said there are three parts to forest fire management — prescribed burns, suppression of fires and letting the fire burn out on its own as in the case of San Miguel.

Anatomy of a prescribed fire

SmokeyBear.com has an interesting diagram of a prescribed fire. It’s very straight forward and should be easy for the public to understand. Click on it to see a larger version.

Prescribed fire diagram

via @FireInfoGirl

Colorado: certifications for prescribed fire

On April 15 the Governor of Colorado signed into law Senate Bill 10-102 which empowers the state to establish certification standards for users of prescribed fires. Here is the text of the bill:

(Capital letters indicate new material added to existing statutes; dashes through words indicate deletions from existing statutes and such material not part of act.)

CONCERNING THE CERTIFICATION OF USERS OF PRESCRIBED FIRE ACCORDING TO STANDARDS ESTABLISHED BY THE COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Colorado:

SECTION 1. 23-31-313 (6) (a), Colorado Revised Statutes, is amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SUBPARAGRAPH to read:

23-31-313. Healthy forests – vibrant communities – funds created. (6) Community watershed restoration. (a) In order to support communities and land managers in moving from risk reduction to long-term ecological restoration so that the underlying condition of Colorado’s forests supports a variety of values, particularly public water supply and high-quality wildlife habitat, the forest service shall:

(III) ESTABLISH TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION STANDARDS FOR USERS OF PRESCRIBED FIRE IN CONSULTATION WITH THE COLORADO PRESCRIBED FIRE COUNCIL OR AN ANALOGOUS SUCCESSOR ORGANIZATION.

THE FOREST SERVICE MAY ALSO CONSULT WITH LOCAL FIRE JURISDICTIONS. NOTHING IN THIS SUBPARAGRAPH (III) REQUIRES A USER OF PRESCRIBED FIRE TO BE CERTIFIED. THE STANDARDS SHALL:

(A) CREATE CERTIFIED BURNER AND NONCERTIFIED BURNER DESIGNATIONS FOR USERS OF PRESCRIBED FIRE ON PRIVATE AND NONFEDERAL LAND;

(B) ESTABLISH REQUIREMENTS FOR CERTIFIED BURNERS TO CONDUCT LAWFUL ACTIVITIES PURSUANT TO AUTHORIZATION UNDER SECTION 18-13-109 (2) (b) (IV), C.R.S., REGARDING FIRING OF WOODS OR PRAIRIE;

(C) IDENTIFY PROCESSES AND PROCEDURES FOR CERTIFIED BURNERS TO CONDUCT A PRESCRIBED FIRE;

(D) RECOMMEND ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES FOR PRESCRIBED BURN OPERATIONS;

(E) ESTABLISH TRAINING STANDARDS FOR CERTIFIED BURNERS; AND

(F) CLEARLY IDENTIFY PREEXISTING FEES, PERMIT REQUIREMENTS, LIABILITIES, LIABILITY EXEMPTIONS, AND PENALTIES FOR PRESCRIBED BURN PERSONNEL AND LANDOWNERS, INCLUDING THOSE SPECIFIED IN SECTIONS 25-7-106 (7) AND (8) AND 25-7-123, C.R.S.

Rapid City FD contains wildfire, then conducts prescribed fire

Yesterday the Rapid City, South Dakota fire department successfully suppressed a grass fire that was threatening homes, containing it after it had only burned a few acres or less (map). But then, according to an article in the Rapid City Journal:

After the fire was contained, the emergency responders decided to conduct a controlled burn in the area to prevent another fire. [Assistant fire chief for the Rapid City Fire Department Mike] Maltaverne said the weather was right and the resources were already on scene.

“We can do it in a controlled setting,” Maltaverne said. “With the recent moisture and all these resources, we can eliminate all these fuels.”

Including the initial fire, about five acres of brush will be burned after the firefighters complete the controlled burn, Maltaverne said.

We were curious if the “controlled burn” was part of the suppression process, such as a burn out, or if it was an actual prescribed fire, unrelated to the wildfire. This morning Wildfire Today talked with Captain Mark Kirchgesler, the Training Coordinator for the Rapid City Fire Department, about the fire. He had not been on the scene of the fire, but said, according to the report, that the size of the fire was about 150 feet by 150 feet (about 1/2 acre) when the first engine arrived. The wildfire had been contained or controlled before the prescribed fire was initiated. The combined size of the wildfire and the adjacent prescribed was five acres.

He said it is not unusual for the fire department to conduct prescribed fires within their jurisdiction to reduce future wildfire threats to structures. When asked who has the authority to initiate a prescribed fire on the spur of the moment out in the field after controlling a wildfire, he said it can be “the incident commander in cooperation with the Assistant Chief for Operations”. He said air quality is always considered before igniting any prescribed fire within the city.

In one sense, you might envy the Rapid City FD for their ability to recognize an opportunity to reduce wildland fuels around structures and seize it immediately, with little or no paperwork and a very streamlined approval process. Those of us that have planned and conducted prescribed fires for federal or most state wildland fire agencies, don’t have the luxury of eliminating the planning process. I only hope that their policy does not backfire on them somewhere down the road.

Thermal thinning and the art of fire

Every now and then I run across a wildland fire term that is new to me. For example, “pyrodiversity“, from a few months ago, or allowing fire to “visit” an area, from about 10 years ago.

Well, here’s another one, “thermal thinning”, from an article about prescribed fire on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources web site. An excerpt:

According to [Johnny] Stowe, prescribed fire can also be used in more sophisticated ways—for example, to prune and thin stands of longleaf pine. The ability of fire to kill or topkill (which inhibits growth) of hardwoods such as red maple, sweetgum, water oak and other species that are generally undesirable in longleaf woodlands and savannas, is well known. Less well-known is the artful use of fire to prune the lower limbs of young longleaf pines; to reduce the number of trees in longleaf stands that are too dense; and to remove other pine species, particularly loblolly, from these stands.

I like the fact that they referred to “the artful use of fire”. And it’s true. Planning and igniting a prescribed fire is as much an art as it is a science, and you can’t become expert in the art of fire from books, classes, or four or five seasons of work as a firefighter. In prescribed fire, you are sometimes dealing with the micro-aspect of fire–the flame length, flame height, residence time, temperature, and how those and other factors will affect the vegetation over the short and long term. And these fire effects and fire behavior on a micro-scale can’t always be predicted using computer programs such as BEHAVE. And if you think of fire as a “dragon”, you will never become artful in using it as a tool.

Fire suppression, in my mind, is less about the micro-aspect of fire. It is a lot more about the science than the art of fire. In suppression, you are using science (whether you know it or not), aided by your experience and the “slides” in your memory bank, to predict what the fire will do and where it will be at a particular time, while you select the most appropriate tool you have available to remove or cool the fuel adjacent to or ahead of the fire.

Video from prescribed fire, possibly in Utah

Here is some cool flamage from a prescribed fire, possibly in Utah. It was posted by “UtahWildfire” on YouTube today. The name of the video is “Ogden Bay Prescribed Fire”. There is an “Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area” west of Ogden, Utah.


There are some still photos posted on Facebook by “Utah Fire”.