Pile Burning in Southwest Colorado: Complicated Circumstances Offset by Partner Support
Authors: Rebecca Samulski
When it comes to active burning, FireWise of Southwest Colorado (FWSC) has rented air curtain burners, reimbursed contractors for pile burning on private land and advocated for fire use, but being engaged in the planning and permitting processes for extensive pile burning was not in our repertoire. However, the experience and expertise within FAC Net recently enabled FWSC to venture deeper into fire use, and this January, we supported our largest pile burning operation yet.
Working with a Community Assistance to Forests Adjacent grant (a pass through grant from USDA Forest Service to Colorado State Forest Service, or CSFS) and in partnership with CSFS district forester, we designed thinning projects to cover 260 acres. Our project area included private and state lands adjacent to the San Juan National Forest. The private lands portion included a pile burning project area on Adam’s Ranch, a 1,500-acre bison ranch owned by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The ranch had 67 large, decade-old, machine-built piles from a previous, 373-acre thinning project.
To a volunteer coordinator who is accustomed to the piles that residents typically burn, these piles, averaging 20 feet x 20 feet x 12 feet, were huge!
After ten years, who would think that both the Tribe and FWSC had plans underway to burn these piles? As it turns out, the Tribe, as a Reserve Treaty Rights Lands award recipient, was planning fuel reduction projects on several of their ranches, including Adams Ranch. Though this work would be on private land, the Reserve Treaty Rights Land funds come with considerably more requirements than Community Assistance to Forests Adjacent funds, so the Tribe was appreciative of the alternative funding source. From settling out the funding to deciding that burning was the best option to getting the work done, pulling off this burn was inherently complicated.
Planning: Cooperation Proved Key
While owned by the Tribe, Adam’s Ranch is not part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) fire crew, consequently, didn’t have the technical authority to burn the piles. The ranch also falls within a volunteer fire protection district that lacks the capacity for private land burning. FWSC, therefore, hired a consultant to be the burn boss. FAC Net and Fire Learning Network members provided invaluable advice and referrals for developing a three-way burn supervisor contract among the consulting burn supervisor, the Tribe and FWSC.
Homes and a state highway were within 200 meters of the burn piles, but fuels experts with BIA, Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control worked out the details of safe burning conditions and developed a burn plan with our burn supervisor. Some live trees and shrubs were too close to the burn piles for comfort, so the burn supervisor marked them for the Tribe’s natural resources team to remove. Lastly, the Colorado Division of Air Quality walked us through the process of obtaining smoke permitting.
Outreach: The Show Must Go On!
Once a contract was in place for the burn supervision, some of the burden was off FWSC, but we were still responsible for conducting extensive outreach, finalizing burn plans and permitting, and facilitating communication among the various partners. Outreach included: mailings to neighboring landowners; announcements via radio, newspaper, and social media; text and email notifications to county emergency alert system users; highway signage; and a public meeting the week before the planned ignition. There was a blizzard the night of the public meeting, which limited attendance to only one guest and the pastor who had graciously opened his doors for the event. Nonetheless, we felt the informational posters and outreach promoting the public meeting had indirectly notified a broader audience to expect smoke.
Implementation: Even More Helping Hands
The pile burning itself also required a coordinated effort. The Tribe provided snow plowing, a snowmobile and staff interested in gaining experience with pile ignition. Three members of the Bureau of Land Management fire crew came out for the first day. They were only able to participate under a certified burn boss, so the burn contractor renewed his certifications through a “Certified Burner” course offered by Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control in early January. Towaoc Fire and Rescue, the main emergency service in the Ute Mountain Ute community, brought a brush truck on standby even though the project was outside of their fire district. CSFS lent radios and a four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicle. The county emergency manager did emergency alert notifications through the sheriff’s office and highway department along with coordinated signage on the highway adjacent to the ranch.
On the first burn day, 53 of the 67 piles were ignited in light snow conditions that were perfect for smoke dissipation. The team returned the following morning in blizzard conditions, finding that between the large snowflakes and blowing winds, it was hard to get the piles to ignite. The burn supervisor and Tribal Natural Resources Crew returned twice more to ignite the remaining piles. Now, we are patrolling the piles regularly to make sure that as the snow melts and the spring winds pick up, all of the piles are extinguished.
Another “First” Moves Us Closer to Better Fire Outcomes
While we will plan for quicker treatment of piles with future thinning projects, we are now better prepared to engage in future pile burning. There are many idiosyncrasies that come with a new project, but with the support of the FAC Net, we found answers to our questions and support every step of the way. I encourage everyone who is working for better fire outcomes to stretch beyond your areas of expertise, break down silos where you work and leverage the resources within the FAC Net to guide you when you need it.