Photo of the burn. Photo Courtesy of the San Juan National Forest.

The Sauls Creek Prescribed Burn: A Community Success Story

By: FAC Network Participant

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

The idea of prescribed burning on public lands adjacent to homes may leave many residents quivering with fear; yet it seems more and more residents are recognizing the need to return fire to fire-dependent ecosystems, such as ponderosa pine forests. In southwest Colorado, these forests historically experienced low-intensity fires every 7-13 years, keeping small shrubs and ladder fuels to a minimum. However, drought conditions and the spate of larger wildfires in recent decades has made it challenging to allow natural fire on the ground. Here’s how the three C’s – cooperation, collaboration and communication allowed a successful 1,100-acre prescribed fire to be conducted next to the Deer Valley Estates (DVE) subdivision in southwest Colorado last September.

The San Juan National Forest surrounds this 60-home community on three sides; ponderosa pine and Gambel oak are the predominant vegetation. Les Kole, a former southern California resident who had been evacuated four times from his home, recognized the strong potential for a wildfire to impact the area. His concern resulted in his offering to lead a Community Wildfire Protection Plan effort for the community, which was completed in December 2010. As part of the recommended treatment options, the Upper Pine River Fire Chief encouraged Kole to add pile burning and light broadcast burning. This “planted the idea” for future discussions around prescribed burning.

As fate would have it, the San Juan National Forest was interested in conducting a prescribed fire to maintain a 200-foot-wide fuel break along the subdivision boundary that was created in the early 2000’s. When the agency and Kole talked with the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, the fire chief felt his folks could not safely provide home protection until residents completed more mitigation work around their homes.

By 2011, the ball really starting rolling. DVE received Firewise Communities USA recognition and Upper Pine Fire brought on several wildland

A photo demonstrating the proximity of the fuel break to some of the homes.

A photo demonstrating the proximity of the fuel break to some of the homes. Photo Credit: San Juan National Forest.

firefighters to do mitigation work on private land when not fighting fires. Upper Pine also received two different grants for wildfire mitigation work in DVE. In working with residents and the fire department, Kole focused first on trying to get residents directly adjacent to the national forest to sign on for mitigation work. As Upper Pine contracted with residents, they asked for, and received, permission to burn slash piles.

Fast forward to 2014 – the conditions were right for the San Juan National Forest to conduct the planned prescribed burn. Fire Management Officer Chris Tipton knew it was key to work closely with residents to allay their fears and gain acceptance for the project. In May he offered a field trip to walk the perimeter of the planned burn area. This transparency and involvement gave the residents a sense of familiarity, ownership and trust through communication, while spurring a greater acceptance of the Forest Service’s intentions for the prescribed burn.

The week prior to the burn (in September) another letter went out to all residents. The week of the burn, Tipton stationed a Public Information Officer at the entrance to the community to answer questions and provide updates. He brought state Senator Ellen Roberts out for a tour.

It took five days to complete the 1,100-acre burn and heavy smoke often lingered in the valley until mid-morning, but the project was deemed an overwhelming success. Residents expressed their excitement about the newly created fuel break surrounding their homes and Forest Service officials felt their objectives had been met.

Following the burn, Tipton once again communicated with residents – both electronically and via snail mail – explaining what they could expect over the next few weeks. He said residents might see small smoke plumes or glowing embers and described how the Forest Service would monitor the area.

The understanding and buy-in from the community would not have been possible without the positive working relationships among all parties involved and the extra effort put into open, and frequent, communication with residents.


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2 thoughts on “The Sauls Creek Prescribed Burn: A Community Success Story”

  1. Elizabeth K. Romere says:

    I absolutely support the reasoning behind these prescribed burns in spite of the fact I have asthma and allergy to both pine trees and the smoke produced from “burning the forest” . During the original burn of the Saul’s Creek mitigation, the smoke was very thick and I lived pretty much in one of the bedrooms in our basement to escape the smoke as I was determined to stay in my house, regardless. Needless to say, I was pretty miserable and very frustrated by the time I could tolerate leaving my basement haven that protected me from the smoke. That said, I would rather put up with the prescribed burn than deal with forest fires because mitigation was not done and MAINTAINED! Hopefully, I will be able to leave the area during the next burn and not have to quarantine myself in the basement to avoid the smoke and prevent severe breathing problems due to the allergies and asthma. I hope others who have reasons they do not want to put up with the smoke will realize no one likes to be inconvenienced by or have to put up with the smoke, but protecting lives and property from forest fires has got to out weigh either of those concerns. For those who may have large animals that cannot be brought into shelter that protects them from the smoke, there are boarding options in the surrounding areas that will allow them to be safe and out of the smoke. I suggest those who find themselves in that situation be proactive and check those options out so they will be prepared the next time the opportunity to maintain our mitigation arises! I believe safety of people and property must take precedence over inconvenience and, by comparison, selfish, trivial concerns. Just my 2 cents !

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