Prescribed burns put on hold until fall

Safety window for controlled fires closes in Northwest Colorado

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS The window of time in which local U.S. Forest Service officials have said it is safe to do controlled burns has closed, meaning no more prescribed fires will happen in the Routt National Forest until fall.

Usually, fire officials burn in the springtime, after the snow on south-facing slopes has melted off, said Kent Foster, zone fire management officer for the Forest Service.

"This makes it a little safer and less complex," he said.

Burning on south-facing slopes early in the spring means that snow is surrounding the open ground. When that's the case, the snow acts as a natural control line for the fire. Without it, crews would have to dig a line around the area that is being burned.

"So not only is it the safest, it also is the most cost-effective way to do it," Foster said.

Also, if the Forest Service did a prescribed burn when snow isn't on the ground, it would need contingency fire crews on call, just in case the burn gets out of control. In the spring, those crews aren't needed to be on standby, Foster said.

In the middle of April, Forest Service fire crews used this technique to burn about 80 acres of land on three different sites south of Gore Pass to improve habitat diversification and to cut down on fuels.

"They actually snowmobiled in to the those areas," Foster said.

Another burn in south Routt County was planned for the spring, but conditions didn't allow the crews to start work on the prescribed fire project. Now that the snow has melted, Foster said they will hold off on that burn.

"We may try to get to that one in the fall," Foster said.

Ideally, fire crews want to have an early snow in the fall, followed by a warm spell. That would simulate spring-like conditions with the south-facing slopes melting while the surrounding area stays covered with snow.

By next spring, Forest Service officials want to have the burning projects in place for the National Fire Plan. That plan was mandated by the federal government last year, along with $1.8 billion in hopes to reduce fuels on public lands and encourage public wildfire education.

Locally, the plan will consist of about five to 10 years of burning and other fuel-reduction practices on 2,732 acres east and north of Steamboat Springs and 2,177 acres near Stagecoach Reservoir. Both spots in the Routt National Forest are identified as key urban interface areas with public land and have a buildup of fuels from years of fire suppression. Forest land for fuel reduction also has been identified near Gould and Kremmling.

Next spring, when the window is open, Foster said burning should begin with those plans. (Doug Crowl is a reporter for the Steamboat Springs Pilot/Today.)

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