White River National Forest supervisor discusses management of the Meadow Creek Fire, near Rifle, Colorado
Read a related story on early planning by White River Forest Service experts to use fire as a restoration tool
By Scott Fitzwilliams
The Meadow Creek Fire started on June 26 near the top of a deep canyon on the edge of Clinetop Mesa. At this time it is 1,452 acres, a small figure compared to the ten-year average of 3.5 million acres of U.S. wildlands that burn every year.
The decision to not put firefighters into a steep-walled canyon with fire rolling downhill was an easy decision to make. Viewing the live web-cam made available for viewing the fire answers that inevitable question, “why didn’t you put it out right away.”
Managing wildland fire is a risky business. Responding to nature’s blazes is a complicated endeavor filled with uncertainty. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity.
The Meadow Creek Fire presented an opportunity that as a land manager I feel will prepare us for success. Keep in mind that my utmost consideration was, is and will always be responder and public safety and minimizing the impacts of fire to local communities. Next in importance comes protecting values including facilities and natural resources which could be damaged by fire. Using taxpayer money responsibly is also a priority.
Applying experience, the best science available, hard work and community cooperation gave me confidence in making the decision to limit the Meadow Creek fire’s spread without entirely extinguishing it. The results are long-term benefits to wildlife and to the land itself. Mountain sheep now have better habitat. The decadent debris choked conifer forest is opened up creating room for more diverse and resilient wildlife and plant species.
It would help to clear up what may be misleading when we report fire acreage. The number used reflects the fire perimeter, not how much of the landscape ends up black. What needs to be emphasized is the way the fire burned. We call it a mosaic, where patches of green vegetation stand out like islands in the ocean. This is the successful result we planned for.
For thousands of years before settlers came to Colorado’s mountains plants and animals adapted to fires. I know that smoke from the Meadow Creek fire was thick at times, and we need to continue to find ways to minimize the impacts of smoke to local residents. However, I believe we can allow fires to play a role in the forest ecosystem and keep smoke to a manageable limit. Throughout this fire we have worked closely with Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment staff and Garfield County health officials.
One thing I would like to see from this fire is the opening of dialogue on large-scale collaborative forest restoration. A century of fire suppression combined with drought and insect epidemics have left our forests in an unhealthy condition, accumulating an unnatural build-up of fuels. During periods of extensive drought this could pose serious threats to communities. A good example of this condition is the bark beetle epidemic.
If we are to take meaningful and lasting action to improve the condition of our forests we must be willing to use fire and use it on a much larger scale than we have in the past. Risk is inherent in doing this to restore the forest.
Our land management agencies can’t do the hard work ahead without public involvement and understanding of our dilemma and a willingness to be open to a new direction in both fire policy and forest restoration.
It’s a journey I hope you will take with me. The risks inherent in this opportunity to make a difference that will last beyond our lifetime are risks I accept.
Scott Fitzwilliams is the Forest Supervisor on the White River National Forest in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Before coming to the White River National Forest, Scott served as the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Willamette National Forest in Eugene, Oregon starting in February of 2006. Prior to moving to Oregon, Scott worked five years as the Recreation, Lands and Minerals Staff Officer on the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest in Sitka, Alaska. Scott was District Ranger on the Little Missouri National Grassland in Dickinson, North Dakota from 1998-2001. Prior to being a District Ranger, Scott worked on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming as the Public Affairs Officer and Acting Jackson District Ranger. Scott started his Forest Service career in the Rocky Mountain Region where he worked as an intern in the Regional Office in Lakewood, Colorado.
Scott has a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin and Masters Degree in Environmental Planning and Policy from the University of Colorado at Denver.
Scott was born and raised in Wisconsin and is spends his free time doing a variety of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, skiing, fishing hunting and coaching kids sports. Scott and his wife Lisa have a seven-year-old son, Sam.