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Fire over the mountain: Forest health group tours West Fork Fire burn area

By Aaron Kimple
Special to The SUN

On June 20, members of the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (San Juan Headwaters) participated in a tour of the West Fork Complex fire area.

The tour offered an opportunity for a first-hand look at the effects of the fires and discussion with land managers about their strategies for managing the fires and the decisions they made.

Participants learned about the impacts of the fires and proposed plans to address them. The tour included a diverse group of agencies and groups including: the San Juan Headwaters Partnership, the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team (RWEACT), the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team, FireWise of Southwest Colorado, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (CFRI), Colorado State Forest Service,  San Juan and Rio Grande national forest officials,  the local chapter of the Society of American Foresters, Rep. Scott Tipton’s staff, environmental groups, business owners, scientists and citizens.

Between June and August, the West Fork Complex fires (West Fork, Papoose and Windy Pass fires) burned approximately 110,000 acres of the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests.

According to Lary Floyd, assistant fire management officer for the Rio Grande,  “The dynamics of the fire were unprecedented. We ran the typical models, but had to adjust our calculations to maximize how well they represented actual conditions, and we still struggled to get the models to indicate what had happened on the ground.”

Projections offered a less than 4-percent chance for the fire to run the valleys and jump the Continental Divide, but the fire defied projections.

The tour included a view of where the West Fork Fire started just above West Fork Campground on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass, a landscape view of the fire and current beetle-kill conditions, and areas that were actively burned.

Discussions covered:

• Concerns and issues that need to be considered in response to a fire;

• The role of bark beetle in modern fires;

• What future fires may look like;

• How the impacts of a fire are measured and assessed;

• How fire influences water quality; and

• Impacts on communities.

Management of the West Fork  required cooperation between the two forests. Adam Mendonca, Rio Grande National Forest deputy forest supervisor, and Kevin Khung, Pagosa District Ranger, explained how they communicated about the fire and allocated resources.  They suggested that terrain and competing fires partially dictated response.

“We have three trucks that we can deploy,” Mendonca said.

Three other starts were identified at the same time as the West Fork Complex was moving over the Continental Divide to the Rio Grande.

“You allocate resources where you can have success. You can’t justify putting firefighters at risk from rough terrain and fire if they aren’t going to have an impact,” he added.

The initial incident management team for the West Fork had to be relieved early on after 19 firefighters closely connected to the team were killed in the Yarnell fire in Arizona.

“You can’t imagine the feeling in camp when they were informed that those firefighters had been killed,” said Khung. “There is such a close bond. Managers are in the business of making decisions that put firefighters at risk. I will never forget that day. You don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

“When a fire starts you have to take into account three things, 1) safety, 2) social impact and 3) economic considerations. If you can get those three things to balance it’s a good day,” according to Khung.

Even today, the significant impact that the fires had on local communities is apparent.

Bill Trimarco, Firewise coordinator in Archuleta County, stated, “Businesses in Creede have closed, tourism in Pagosa was impacted, and Highway 160 was closed for a week, but no firefighters were lost, and only a pumphouse burned. How those factors are weighted is a part of individual priorities.”

Following the fire, RWEACT began to monitor rain events, threats to safety and water quality. “We wanted to better prepare the community for hazards following the fire so we placed rain gauges and stream gauges to better forecast storms and runoff,” stated Heather Dutton, natural resources coordinator for RWEACT.

The impact of bark beetle figured in all parts of the discussion of the West Fork Fire. The beetles’ presence was impossible to ignore in a landscape dominated by gray-brown, needleless trees, but consensus seemed to be that the beetles, though likely a factor, were less a factor than environmental conditions.

“Prolonged drought, reduced snowpack, warmer temperatures, likely had more of an influence than the beetle,” said Brett Wolk, of CFRI.

The day concluded with a discussion of the future of wildfire in southwest Colorado. Wildfires are a part of where we live. What are acceptable impacts? Even if communities are not facing actual flames, they still have to deal with smoke and trail closures.

“Those impacts can be hard on communities with economies built around outdoor recreation,” stated Trimarco.  “The risk of wildfire can be reduced with proper mitigation and prescribed burns, but those burns still generate smoke.”

Quincy Buickerood, the youngest attendee of the tour (age 14), summed up his thoughts this way: “Smoke is better than fire.”

Overall, the tour offered a broad discussion of wildfire and how it influences regional communities. Since several fires of note have occurred in the region over the past few years, the group was able to compare the fire characteristics of the Little Sand and West Fork fires. The primary conclusion was that we need to prepare our land managers and communities for the effects of fire.

“Those preparations start with conversations like the ones we have been having today,” Aaron Kimple, program coordinator for San Juan Headwaters noted. “We have representatives from two forests, RWEACT and San Juan Headwaters. We need to continue to host conversations that look at how we address fire on a landscape scale.”

John Angst, member of the Society of American Foresters, concluded that, “The tour was very informative and, I believe, certainly opened some eyes.”

For more information on the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, and to learn about upcoming events, go to www.sanjuanheadwaters.org.

This story was posted on July 10, 2014.