The Sauls Creek Prescribed Burn: A Community Success Story
Authors: Pam Wilson
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
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.