The absence of prescribed fire

As we look to the skies on these recent clear and warm days in the San Luis Valley, I can’t help but to marvel at how wonderful the weather has been this fall. But something is missing in those clear skies. The thing I am thinking of is the occasional smoke column that rises slowly into the blue and drifts away, eventually mixing with the air around it. These columns may be from a farmer or rancher burning a field to replenish nutrients or irrigation ditches to set back the vegetation. Or they may be a result of area land management agencies conducting fuels treatments or range/wildlife habitat improvement projects. 

There are many considerations when deciding to ignite a prescribed fire, or controlled burn, as they are often referred to, and it seems like those considerations have resulted in decisions to not burn this fall. That is OK by me. The fuels conditions, or dryness of the vegetation and woody debris, was likely in a more optimal state earlier this fall, but with the lack of moisture, it may very well be too dry to burn now. However, relative humidity (RH) can play a key role in burning and opportunities to burn may be seized on days when the RH is forecast higher.

Regardless of the reason, I just have not seen, or even heard of as much burning going on this fall. Normally, each spring and fall, land management agencies across the west typically embark on their well-planned and meaningful prescribed fire campaigns. The timing is designed around the shorter, cooler days when fire behavior will likely be only moderate, at best. And for shorter time periods. So, they load up their trucks, fire engines, ATV’s, drip torches, water bags, portable tanks, tools, lots of extra fuel mix and, of course the firefighters, and head out to pre-identified areas to systematically ignite the vegetation to achieve pre-determined objectives.

It was an extreme summer and fall in this wildfire year, with tens of thousands of firefighters working tirelessly for several months. With hardly a day off and they were back at it on the next one. Perhaps, the firefighters are simply in the recharge mode with little appetite to spend more time in the smoke. I don’t blame them.

This summer, we had a great growing season in the wildlands. I backpacked up to Blue Lakes where I waded through over waist-high vegetation. I think of that area now and how the tall vegetation has cured for the winter and stands dry and ripe for fire. It will burn well with greater potential for faster spread.

This is where a well-placed and appropriately conducted prescribed burn can make a big difference on how a wildfire might affect the places we do not want to burn so intensely, and of course, the structures and other values at risk, such as powerlines, etc. The careful application of fire in strategic locations will burn these tall and dry fuels under more manageable circumstances and reduce dangerous fuel loading to a less risky condition. The burn plans consider typical wind and weather patterns and provide for a treatment that will severely modify wildfire behavior, without the need to treat the entire landscape.

I’ve written several times about the value of wildland fire and how we should use it to the most natural extent possible. The wild lands around us contain a vegetation scheme that was developed over thousands of years with wildfires being a primary change component. I’d rather see us conduct many more low-intensity, prescribed fires than witness the extreme burning of millions of acres each summer. I can tolerate the smoke because I know what the alternative is. But make no mistake; I only support the responsible application of fire in the right place, at the right time and for the right reason.

Gregg Goodland is the Public Affairs Officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. An avid outdoor enthusiast, you’ll find him enjoying all public lands as often as possible.