BLM introduces fire management plan

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The Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office is ready to unveil a plan that would give some flexibility in fighting wildland fires. The new Fire Management Plan allows the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to let some fires burn, controlled, without any attempts to stop them.

"The plan allows us to let fire play its natural role in the ecosystem," BLM Field Manager John Husband said.

The Fire Management Plan is in draft form. BLM officials don't expect it to be officially adopted until spring after a period of public comment.

"This plan will allow us to use fire as a management tool for resource benefit," BLM Public Affairs Specialist Lynn Barclay said.

In the past, BLM wildland firefighters had only one option fire suppression. The only flexibility was "least cost suppression" where officials could let a fire burn if a natural fire break would soon stop it and that was the most cost-effective way of dealing with a fire.

"That's a little different that using fire as a resource benefit," Husband said.

The new plan gives officials certain criteria that must be met in order to allow a fire to take its natural course to create a healthy ecosystem. According to Husband, fire can have many benefits to certain ecosystems. For example, fire clears out older brush and allows for new growth that may be more palatable for big game or more suitable for sage grouse cover.

"Some species and ecosystems tend to do better under the circumstances which they evolved and that's what we're trying to do give them that opportunity," Fire Ecologist Charley Martin said.

Fires will only be able to burn unsuppressed in certain areas and under specific conditions. If the fire is human caused, certain weather conditions prevail or it threatens structures or habitat, it will be suppressed.

"People should not expect that we'll manage a great number of fires for resource management," Husband said.

Martin said he didn't expect most unsuppressed fires to be large.

The plan provides a checklist to determine criteria that must be met before a fire can be managed for resource benefit. Though a fire may burn unsuppressed, it will be under constant supervision by BLM officials to ensure it doesn't get out of hand or out of its designated burn area.

Fuels management is also addressed as part of the plan and calls for mowing weeds or beating brush in order to prevent fires from burning in sensitive areas. As part of the fuels management plan, BLM officials may allow a fire to burn unsuppressed in order to burn off fire fuels that may cause an uncontrolled fire in the future.

"We are trying, when possible, to let fire take its natural course," Barclay said.

Years of fire suppression have allowed fuels to build up that can cause fires to ignite or feed them as they burn. This build-up of fuel makes fire suppression difficult in many instances, Barclay said.

Appropriate management response to wildland fire will be based on three criteria: public and firefighter safety, benefits and impacts to natural resources and cost. Lands within the Little Snake Field Office fall within four suppression categories. Portions of Moffat County defined as "A" areas include the City of Craig and most of the land to the east. All fires will be suppressed in those areas. Prescribed fires may be allowed in "B" areas, but all unplanned fires will be suppressed. Fire may be desired in "C" areas, but social, political or ecological constraints must be considered. Many areas west of Maybell have been defined as "D" areas, BLM land where fire is desired and there are few constraints in its use.

All fires that threaten private or state property will be suppressed unless a landowner signs an agreement with the BLM asking that no fire suppression efforts be taken.

"This is an important issue for this area," Husband said. "Wildland fires have more potential to change vegetation and fuel hazards on public lands more quickly than any other management tool available to us."

Land management bureaus across the state have been working on fire management plans as called for in the 1995 U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior Wildland Fire Management Policy requirements. Several have already been adopted across the state, including a plan for the White River National Forest in Rio Blanco County.

The Little Snake Field Office has been working on a draft of this plan for nearly three years and has invoked cooperation from the Division of Wildlife, State Parks, county officials and officials with Dinosaur National Monument.

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