Going Slow to Go Fast with Prescribed Fire: the Colorado State Experience

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
A harvester operator piles dead lodgepole pine on Gould Mountain that’s been cut down to reduce wildfire fuel. This project is a partnership between a private logger and the Colorado State Forest Service. Dec. 30, 2020.

We’ve been following the Chief’s wildland fire letter, the (some fire) scientists’ letter, and the (some retirees) letter.  Remember, here’s the Chief’s letter

At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety. In PL 5, the reality is we are resource limited. The core tenet of the Forest Service’s fire response strategy is public and firefighter safety above all else…
At this time, for all of these reasons, managing fires for resource benefit is a strategy we will not use. In addition, until further notice, ignited prescribed fire operations will be considered only in geographic areas at or below PL 2 and only with the approval of the Regional Forester after consulting with the Chief’s Office.

What I think is missed in the fire scientists’ letter is consideration of the judgment call about what we call in collaborative work “going slow to go fast” or how building trust early on by going slow can accelerate support and movement forward in the future. Again, to my mind, that’s not a question (go slow or go fast at this point in time at this geographic scale) that fire science can tell us; in fact, I don’t think that any social science discipline can tell us one specific answer. Thought experiment: suppose economists claimed to speak for “science”? Or political ecologists? Indeed, there are more disciplines around today than you can shake a charred branch at, many of whom claim authority for their view of “science.”

Here’s the way I would ask the key question the Chief faces “Given current 2021 conditions, what is the best thing to do, with firefighter and public safety primary, to also give the FS the best chance of being able to manage WFU and PBs in the future?”. It’s ultimately a people/land/resources judgment call that we have experts and experienced people hired, trained, and selected to make. Of course, there’s a science piece to the puzzle, but it’s one of many pieces. And any particular discipline is one of many science pieces. Just in the fire sciences, there are people who study communities and prescribed fire, scientists who study firefighters, and so on. Even if you had a panel with all those disciplines represented (some kind of interdisciplinary EPA-like Science Advisory Board) you would need to include management science.. which has its own body of literature on the role of intuition in decision-making. Here’s just one review of that literature. So we can’t even pick one social science discipline that can claim unique authority to what “science” says to help address the “what to do” question.

Here’s one experience that may have influenced Coloradans. The North Fork fire was a prescribed burn that got out of control, and apparently is having a long term effect on acres treated by the State.  This story is from Colorado Public Radio (CPR).

Burning authority

In March of 2012, the Colorado State Forest Service was managing a prescribed fire southeast of Conifer. The winds picked up on a hot and dry day, which started the Lower North Fork Fire. It killed three people, and destroyed nearly two dozen homes.

Colorado State Forester Mike Lester said the event was traumatic for many — agency staffers included.

“A lot of really good people really felt like their life’s work was tarnished in some way,” Lester said. “And it was unfair because they applied the techniques at that point in time we thought were the right ways to do it.”

An independent review of the fire found no individual at fault. But victims criticized the review and wanted change. A bill was passed, which ended the state forest service’s authority to do prescribed burning. The agency’s fire unit employees were moved to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Lester doesn’t think that the Colorado State Forest Service needs that authority reinstated.

“We would be happy to assist, but as far as taking the lead role again, there’s no point in that because [the Division of Fire Prevention and Control] does prescribed fire.”


But the division is burning a lot less. Permit data from the state shows that Fire Prevention and Control burns about an eighth of the acreage each year that the Colorado State Forest Service once did.

Mike Morgan, the division director, said drier conditions fueled by climate change, including Colorado’s persistent drought, makes burning challenging.

“And the more homes we get in the areas where we would typically consider using fire as a tool, the more risk or hazard there is associated with using fire as a tool to do that,” Morgan said.

But federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, are still conducting prescribed burns. Morgan said since the land they manage is further away from homes, it makes it easier for the federal agency to use fire as a tool. And that’s why the state has turned to more manual thinning, like the logging project on Gould Mountain.

My bold. And Joe Duda’s point of view:

But former deputy state forester Joseph Duda doesn’t think that’s enough. Duda, who retired last year, wants to see the Colorado State Forest Service’s authority to burn reinstated.

“You’ve taken an important tool out of the toolbox,” Duda said. “When the tool is necessary, you’ve basically tied a hand behind their back.”

While Mike Morgan with fire prevention and control cites climate change and a growing number of people and developments crowding into wildland areas as reasons to do less burning, Duda sees those as the reasons to do more.

“How are we better off if we’re doing less management?” Duda said. “Clearly we’ve had warmer and drier, more drastic conditions. The time now isn’t to do less forestry, it’s to do more forestry.”

Duda said Colorado’s forest service is one of the only state forest services that can’t conduct prescribed burns. That also means the agency is not allowed to burn piles of thinned trees and brush for wildfire mitigation on private land.

“The state forest service is the forestry agency for private landowners, that’s a significant ownership. There’s six and a half million acres or so of private forest lands in Colorado,” Duda said.

While the State Forest Service is blocked from conducting prescribed fires, they haven’t stopped showing their support for its use. The agency’s latest Forest Action Plan calls for more of it in Colorado, which at this point is all the agency can do.

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