To burn or not to burn?

New plan that would allow fires on private land to burn with owner's consent put on hold as area experiences peak fire season

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It wasn't long ago that a local landowner was miffed when local firefighters started to extinguish a blaze that started naturally on private land.

In light of Moffat County's new fire plan, the blaze should have been left to burn according to the landowner's wishes and a signed consent.

But in the peak of fire season, said Dave Skidmore, a zone fire management officer, the right to let private land burn is conditional.

"We get it all the time," Skidmore said of brisk run-ins with landowners when fire officials show up to extinguish a blaze. "They're wondering why the federal government is interfering."

According to the recently adopted the Moffat County Wildland Fire and Fuel Management Plan, participating private landowners may opt to let naturally occurring fires burn if the fire isn't infringing on public land, Skidmore said.

However, in the case of the most recent fire on private land, he added, allowing the fire to burn itself out would have required weeks of monitoring from local firefighters. That translates into an increase in fire-fighting dollars for which the county would have to budget.

"Just because we can now let it burn, doesn't mean we have the resources to let it burn," said Jeff Comstock, the director of natural resources for Moffat County.

"The mindset of the landowner is to let it burn but the landowner has to realize that it's within some parameters," Comstock added. "Mid-July is not the optimum time to be letting (every) fire burn."

On an average day, firefighters race around the county to extinguish between five to 20 small naturally occurring fires, said Lynn Barclay, a fire mitigation education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Tending large fires on private lands that may spread to public lands may be logistically and financially impossible, Barclay said.

Letting fires burn on private land may be more feasible for firefighters and easier on the budget if it doesn't occur during the hotter, drier summer months when crews are maxed out suppressing other fires, she said.

"We just can't afford to put people on every fire when we're already busy," Barclay said. "That approval has to come from the commissioners."

Fire officials presented the dilemma over whether to let large fires on private lands burn or suppress them to commissioners at a meeting Monday. Though it was the first time commissioners were presented with the idea, Comstock waged the issue would be low on their list of priorities.

"They have so many other things to deal with," he said. Also Comstock questioned if commissioners would approve of spending the additional dollars.

"It's a developing process," Comstock said. "This is the first time in the nation that landowners got together and developed a plan over what they wanted to do."

The Moffat County Wildland Fire and Fuel Management Plan is a comprehensive effort of area landowners and county officials. It covers the management of 2,600 parcels of county land owned by roughly 600 individuals. Before the plan was adopted in September 2001, firefighters were required by the county to suppress all fires that infringed within a fourth of a mile of public land.

Now, private landowners may let naturally occurring fires burn under certain conditions, Comstock said.

"Before it was suppress everything," he said. "Now it's the new question of how do we deal with letting it burn."

For more information, contact Moffat County Natural Resource Director Jeff Comstock at 826-3400.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or by email at ahatten@craigdailypress.

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