Lower North Fork Fire in Colorado spurs concerns about fire management
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Sen. Mark Udall wants the U.S. Forest Service to review prescribed fire procedures in the wake of the destructive Lower North Fork Fire that killed three people and destroyed 23 homes last month in Jefferson County.
While acknowledging the value of prescribed burns as a forest management tool, Udall wrote in a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell that “a prudent review will help reassure Coloradans and protect Colorado communities during wildfire season.”
Finger-pointing and second-guessing about the cause of the Lower North Fork Fire began even before the flames were completely doused, and Udall has probably been hearing some of those same questions from his constituents.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is currently managing dozens of prescribed fires across the country: Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Washington, and even California, which experienced a much drier winter than Colorado.
The agency has well-established protocols for planning and implementing prescribed fires and those plans are reviewed and updated internally on a regular basis. Prescribed fires are used to reduce the potential for larger catastrophic fires by reducing fuel loads and opening areas in forests that can act as fire breaks during uncontrolled wildfires.
Essentially, prescribed fires mimic the natural vegetative disturbance of periodic fire occurrence in fire-dependent ecosystems, and restore those outside their natural balance.
Udall siad an April 13 state report on the Lower North Fork Prescribed Fire included important findings that can be used to review and make any necessary improvements to federal prescribed burn procedures. Senator Michael Bennet also signed the letter.
“This report contains important recommendations for the Colorado State Forest Service to strengthen prescribed fire operations, including long-term patrol and monitoring activities. As the state reexamines their prescribed burn procedures, we request that the USFS review the findings of this report and reexamine its own prescribed burn procedures,” the senators wrote in the letter. “It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to learn from this tragic fire so that we can be better prepared in the future.”
Wildfire is an understood reality in Colorado, where Colorado State University climatologists estimate 98 percent of the state is currently under drought conditions, but responsible steps can be taken to prevent and mitigate wildfire risk. In the letter, the members acknowledge the importance of prescribed burns as an effective forest management tool while noting that a prudent review will help reassure Coloradans and protect Colorado communities during wildfire season.
The text of the letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell:
Dear Chief Tidwell:
We write to highlight the concerns from across our drought-ridden home state about the safety of prescribed burns. Prescribed fire is a vital component of forest management that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other agencies have used successfully for many years to reduce wildfire risk and restore healthy forests. However, the tragedy of the Lower North Fork fire – which was ignited from an escaped prescribed burn from the Colorado State Forest Service – raises critical issues about how, when, and under what circumstances this tool should be used.
Last week, the state of Colorado and Colorado State University released a review of the Lower North Fork Prescribed Fire. This report contains important recommendations for the Colorado State Forest Service to strengthen prescribed fire operations, including long-term patrol and monitoring activities. As the state reexamines their prescribed burn procedures, we request that your agency review the findings of this report and reexamine its own prescribed burn procedures. It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to learn from this tragic fire so that we can be better prepared in the future. We know that the agencies are highly professional and utilize the best available science to conduct your operations. However, in light of this recent example and before the wildfire season begins in earnest, we urge you to review the report and consider whether any of your federal rules and procedures could be improved. This close look will help reassure Coloradans and ensure that we are helping keep communities safe.
We continue to believe that prescribed burns can be an essential tool for effective forest management and do not intend this to be a top-down comprehensive agency review. However, we want to be sure that the USFS is learning all available lessons from the Lower North Fork fire and is doing everything in its power to ensure the safety of prescribed burns.