US Forest Service explains controlled burn process in wake of Keystone Gulch burn pile reignition
Prescribed burns are a common practice in Summit County, but events like last Saturday’s wildfire scare in Keystone have led some residents to question how the practice works, how the U.S. Forest Service mitigates risk of a pile burn becoming a wildfire and when residents should dial 911 to report a fire.
Explaining the events of the May 7 reignition of a prescribed burn at Keystone, Eric White of the Dillon Ranger District said, “Piles can creep. Fires can move through the residual ground fuels that are left behind after the piles are built. That’s written into the burn plan.”
Winds on May 7 accelerated that creep, and crews were called in to monitor it. Fellow Dillon Ranger District member Justin Conrad emphasized a common characteristic of pile burns seen Saturday — snow.
“We burn these piles in winter to reduce the chances these fires can move,” Conrad explained.
Wind acts as a double-edged sword for pile burns. On one hand, it removes smoke from valleys and keeps it away from homes and peoples’ lungs. On the other hand, it can accelerate or increase fire spread and deliver embers to new kindling.
So while Saturday’s burn resulted more flames than expected, the situation was within the expectations for a pile burn, Adam Bianchi of the Dillon Ranger District said. The flames licked at more wood than originally planned and simply accelerated the district’s controlled burn.
The Forest Service warns county residents of prescribed burns and cautions them to avoid dialing 911 if they see smoke in the areas listed in the alerts. Those calls can inundate emergency dispatchers and prevent them from responding to other emergencies.
Keystone’s burn, however, benefited from the response, Conrad said, and a thin line exists between when one should report a fire and when one shouldn’t.
“We hate to see (dispatchers) overwhelmed, but we also don’t want things to go unreported,” he said.
Often, the value of a pile burn like the one in Keystone isn’t seen until a wildfire strikes. The initial cut of standing trees removes the risk of a crown fire — fire spreading through the canopy of trees. The subsequent pile burn removes most ground-level fuel, and the end result is a field nearly devoid of fuel for wildfires, which creates a buffer.
During the Buffalo Mountain wildfire of 2018, Dillon Ranger District estimated that a buffer zone created through pile burns saved almost $913 million worth of private property. For reference, it costs $1 million to cut and burn 900 acres, an area about the size of 675 football fields.
Buffer zones made through pile burns also save the lives of those battling the flames. They create a safer zone for firefighters on the ground to operate in. In wildfires, burning trees often fall over.
“Trees kill firefighters every year,” White said.
The process of a prescribed burn can take a half-decade or more, and it follows many steps, including environmental analysis, site prep, awarding contracts, cutting, drying wood, burning piles and, lastly, regrowing plant life. The end goal is mimicking the natural cycle of a forest fire in a controlled manner.
The environmental analysis performed before cutting a swath of forest to burn addresses disturbances to habitat, soil, wildlife and recreation, Dillon Ranger District fuels planner Kat Gray explained.
“All of us who work for the Forest Service, we’re pretty much all environmentalists,” Gray said. “I don’t want to go out and clear cut a primary lynx habitat.”
While the exact boundaries of a cut are square, Gray said cutters will often follow natural topography, avoid endangered or at-risk flora or fauna habitat and cut natural-looking edges.
After the swath is cut, the wood sits for over a year to dry. Burning wet or green wood will result in an incomplete burn.
Once all the prep has been done and the wood has dried, the Forest Service waits for the right “burn window” in the weather, Gray explained. She said moisture via rain or snow, a breeze to lift smoke into the atmosphere and enough personnel on hand all factor into finding the window.
And after the piles have burned, the work of the Dillon Ranger District isn’t done, since personnel must now monitor regrowth.
“We have certain standards for the forests. … We need to see the trees coming back, or else we will go back and plan,” Gray said.
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