Colorado Springs Utilities employees prepare for the broadcast burn by digging line and reducing fuels on the edges of the units. Photo Credit: Colorado Springs Utilities

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Prescribed Burning in Colorado’s Front Range: An After Action Review

Authors: Jonathan Bruno

As is the case with many of our plans; things changed. I had hoped to write a blog post, heavily laden with smiley faced pictures of fire fighters and smoke billowing off the hill slopes. Instead, due to weather, property owner concessions, burn restrictions and more weather, the team has pulled the plug on our planned burns with the hope of getting them completed next year. I should note that all is not lost, and I do have some interesting items to share regarding our planning process and our next steps as we continue to build community and political support for the use of broadcast burning as an effective and safe management tool.

What Was Planned?

Below is an excerpt from our media release:

The Pikes Peak Fire Learning Network will conduct two prescribed fire projects this fall in the Woodland Park area. The Sourdough and North Catamount burns are scheduled to take place in mid to late October, exact dates will depend on weather conditions.

Pikes Peak Fire Learning Network is a collaborative established to bring local and regional partners together to collectively identify and implement strategies for the safe, effective and appropriate use of fire for management.

The Sourdough prescribed burn will take place over a 24 acre area located north of Woodland Park. It will occur on private property off of Sourdough road just south of the Manitou Experimental Forest.

The North Catamount prescribed burn will take place on a 105 acre area located on the Colorado Springs Utilities’ North Slope Watershed near the North Catamount Reservoir.

 

See the full media releases and additional information here,

Communications

In an effort to undertake the best outreach to local officials and community members, the Pikes Peak Fire Learning Network (PPFLN) took a multi-step approach:

  1. Provide news releases to local media outlets. The burn team identified local media outlets, including print and broadcast, and provided them with detailed project information. We also hosted a tour to the Catamount site to explain the FLN and the project goals.
  2. As part of the planning process the team identified smoke receptors within a half mile of the burn sites. Colorado Springs Utilities, using Teller County Assessor’s data, identified mailing addresses for everyone within the half-mile radius and sent project letters to each individual address. Burn leaders for each project were identified with direct contact information provided.
  3. The PPFLN created a website – pikespeakfln.org–to provide up-to date information on the activities of the Network and project details. In addition, a Twitter account was also set up, @pikespeakFLN, and several Twitter hashtags were created.
  4. Posters, flyers and information boards were set up at strategic locations within the burn vicinity and surrounding community.
Training Opportunities and Operational Resources Outreach

In order to assess the local fire response personnel needs, we drafted several emails inviting local resources to participate. The emails highlighted training opportunities related to Position Task Books, and the response was great. Within our area, Engine Bosses and Burn Bosses are a bit limited. A goal of the PPFLN is to raise the qualifications of the local resources, and several individuals did accept the opportunity to participate. We received interest from Colorado Springs Fire Department, Florissant Fire, Mountain Communities Fire, NE Teller Fire, Divide Fire, Larkspur Fire and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

Monitoring

In partnership with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, a monitoring effort was undertaken to collect pre-burn understory data.

What Actually Happened?

Colorado Springs Utilities employees prepare for the broadcast burn by digging line and reducing fuels on the edges of the units. Photo Credit: Colorado Springs Utilities

Colorado Springs Utilities employees prepare for the broadcast burn by digging line and reducing fuels on the edges of the units. Photo Credit: Colorado Springs Utilities

In early October the fuel moistures and weather parameters were met and the conditions looked perfect for burning. We received only a few comments from the general public (see example below). We also received a note from one resident notifying the team that they would be out of town and that if we intended to go ahead with the burn while they were away, they would file an injunction to stop the burn. The Team, in an effort to work with this particular owner, honored his request and delayed the burn. When this individual returned, the Team (local fire chief, burn boss, and project leads), met with the resident to discuss the project. In a very short meeting, details were provided and the owner agreed to the terms and our goals. We were surprised at how well the meeting went. By having a diverse team address this individual’s concerns we made great strides toward building trust and credibility. The landowner even volunteered to speak on behalf of our project to the local HOA. By delaying the project per their request, we also showed that we cared about their concerns.

A concerned citizen’s comment:

“We are in Holiday hills and we really hope you guys know what you are doing. Please don’t burn my house down, I will never forgive you that one. Remember Los Alamos! Good luck”.

Weather and Burn Restrictions

As wetter fall weather pushed forward, conditions continued to move further from ideal. Fall storms dropped snow and rain within the burn units. Drying times in our area, based on the fuels, can take up to two weeks.

In addition to the weather, we were constrained by several restrictions that limited open burning within the project sites. The Colorado Front Range is a visitors’ playground, with hunters and weekend warriors heading to the hills every weekend to go have some fun (As an IA fire fighter, I can not count the number of escaped campfires I have had to go extinguish over the years). Because of this influx of visitors over the weekends, it has become common within our area that fire restrictions be put into place (regardless of the fuel/weather conditions) on Friday and lifted early in the week. We understand the value of these restrictions to reduce our call volumes, but this approach has proven to be very challenging when attempting to conduct prescribed burns on private property.

These factors all resulted in no window in which to conduct these burns and we were forced to postpone the projects until next year.

Lessons Learned
  1. Utilize a robust communications plan to reach out to anyone who might be interested in or concerned about the project.
  2. Be responsive to comments and concerns. The individuals that showed significant concern were directly contacted, heard, and provided information and/or project changes to better meet their needs.
  3. If you are able, provide the project lead’s name and contact information on outreach tools. By doing this you are showing people that you or the lead is available and accountable.
  4. Provide handouts and flyers and talk to people when you are posting. I heard several comments from residents stating that they really appreciated my time and wished that every entity that burns took the same steps.
  5. Develop a strong interpersonal-relationship with the key jurisdictional agencies to build support for the project, permitting and involvement with the burn activity itself.
  6. Reach out to local media contacts early in the process. By engaging local media outlets well in advance of the burn we were able to get several positive media stories about prescribed fire and the Fire Learning Network. We also brought in media expertise from several partners, expanding our outreach and communication beyond traditional practices.
  7. Take advantage of opportunities to meet and work with new partners. Although we were unable to burn this fall, we did work closely with other fire practitioners to: prepare control lines, establish agreements, coordinate resources, and conduct site visits, tours, and media events. As we approach our next burn window we will already have familiarity and cohesion, which will better position our network for success.
Next Steps
  1. All of the planning elements and permits are in place and will be helpful when we look toward the future for burning.
  2. We hope to work with the local fire authorities to better coordinate when burn restrictions are put into place.
  3. The Team will work on a Master Agreement to facilitate everyone helping each other in their burning endeavors.
  4. Reassess burn project areas for additional preparation work to ensure control lines and features are back to a high standard in order to complete the project when the next opportunity arises.

Special thanks go out to all of the participants of the Pikes Peak Fire Learning Network and our community members!

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