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Chimney Rock National Monument prescribed burns a success

Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service Pagosa Ranger District completed two days of prescribed burning within Chimney Rock National Monument last week.

Ignition and burning took place Tuesday, Jan. 28, and Wednesday, Jan. 29, on San Juan National Forest lands near the Chimney Rock visitor center. The burn area totaled approximately 160 acres across the entry road from the visitor center. Approximately 30 acres were treated on the 28th and 130 acres were treated on the 29th.

Overall, 17 firefighters helped to successfully complete the prescribed burn treatment, including five firefighters from the Pagosa Area Fire Protection District. The crew ignited needle litter and debris left over from a 2009 mechanical fuels reduction project that was completed by hand.

According to Fred Ellis, assistant fire management officer for fuels with the Pagosa Ranger District, the burns progressed smoothly and set treatment goals were achieved. Wildlife biologist with the Pagosa Ranger District Brandy Richardson agreed that all went well.

“We burned up a lot of needles and litter, plus it was nice to have some moisture post burn,” said Richardson.

The four main goals the district hoped to achieve with the burn were to: return fire to a fire-dependent ecosystem, reduce accumulated ground fuels, raise canopy base heights, and reduce masticated fuels and pine litter. According to both Ellis and Richardson, these goals were met in the units burned last week, which included ponderosa and pinon-juniper forest areas.

“All of those goals feed into an overall goal of reducing the risk of unplanned wildfire in this area,” explained Ellis.

The 30-acre burn unit consists mainly of ponderosa forest, while the additional 130-acre unit is more varied. According to Ellis, the larger unit transitions from flat areas of spread out, pre-settlement ponderosa with a juniper and grass understory to steeper slopes that mainly support pinon-juniper forest.

The goal in much of this area was to reduce the presence of less fire-dependent species, such as junipers, that are moving into areas that have traditionally been ponderosa forest, an ecosystem highly dependent of fire. When junipers and other understory species move into these areas, ponderosas have to compete with them for resources and overall forest health declines.

The prescribed burns produced minimal smoke and caused no visibility problems last week. Some smoke produced did settle down the drainage around Colo. 151 and the Piedra in the evenings, but quickly moved out with the weather that moved into the Pagosa area late last week.

Although the two burn units are fairly close to the Chimney Rock visitor center, Ellis explained that post-burn aesthetic concerns are minimal.

“Native grasses should recover quickly and the burn area will be less noticeable to the untrained eye once green up begins this spring,” said Ellis.

The prescribed burns carried out last week were part of an overarching project to both reduce fuels and improve forest health in the Chimney Rock area of the San Juan National Forest. Ellis explained that the project actually started about 10 years ago with some hand thinning. Mastication treatments were then carried out in 2009 and burn projects began in 2011. Prior to the ignition of the 30- and 130-acre units last week, four units had been burned in the Chimney Rock area. All burns carried out to this date, including those last week, were done in order to both reduce fuel loads and improve forest health in the San Juan National Forest around Chimney Rock.

This story was posted on February 6, 2014.