Western Moffat County fire allowed to burn

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When a 500-acre wildfire broke in western Moffat County last week, local officials were able to say "let it burn."

The fire was burning on Bureau of Land management land, but was close to the privately owned Cross Mountain Ranch.

Normally this fire would have been extinguished immediately, but because the land owner had agreed to a plan in which fires are allowed to burn, nothing was done to suppress the fire.

The fire near Cross Mountain Ranch, which burned itself out this week, was the first implementation of a new fire plan that is still being created, but almost complete in Moffat County.

In the new plan, landowners throughout Moffat County were contacted and interviewed about whether they would want to allow fire to burn if it was of benefit to the land.

"We're talking about allowing fires to burn when property is not in danger and an ecological benefit exists," said Moffat County Natural Resources Policy Analyst Jeff Comstock.

The county's ability to create the plan comes courtesy of House Bill 1283 passed by the state in 2000.

Before that bill was passed, sheriffs were mandated by law to suppress any fires that threatened private land.

But the law passed in 2000 gave sheriffs the option of allowing a fire to burn if it benefited the land and landowners in the area agreed to allow the fire to burn.

"This gave us the authority to make plans with landowners who voluntarily wanted to be partners," Comstock said.

The passage of the law allowed the county to begin development of the new public/private land fire plan in 2001.

"It gives us a better toolbox of options to choose from," said Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead. "It allows us to make a decision about whether to suppress a fire or allow it to burn. Now we can allow a naturally started fire to take its course if it is beneficial to the land."

Comstock said landowners were asked two things during the process in which he said the department received an "overwhelming response" from area landowners.

The landowners indicated if they wanted to allow fires to burn or not, and identified the areas on a map in which fire could benefit the land, Comstock said.

BLM Little Snake Field Office Director John Husband said the plan is an attempt at "seamless management."

"The attempt is to make fire plans (boundaryless)," he said. "I think it will work well."

But he said careful consideration needs to be taken any time a fire might be allowed to burn.

"There's always a potential pitfall when you're playing with fire," Husband said. "We can do this but we need to realize there's risks involved. We always need to make contact with landowners in the area and make sure they are still willing."

Comstock said tax dollars can also be saved through the new plan.

"It saves money," he said. "We don't have to bring helicopters and buckets of water to put out these fires."

Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson, who has been involved in the process since the start, said the practice of immediately suppressing fires had caused a fuel overload, which is why so many fires have erupted in recent years throughout the state.

"We have a fire prone ecosystem," he said. "And for 60 some years there had been a policy of suppressing wildfires," he said.

Because there is such an intertwining of private and public lands in the county, it was necessary that a map be developed that local authorities could refer to when fires broke, he said.

The goal is to have phase 3 of the plan, which encompasses the eastern half of Moffat County, complete by next fire season, Dickinson said.

"There's a lot of counties going through this process," he said. "We're as far along if not farther than most."

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