The lessons of Little Sand, a year later


By Melissa Stedman and Randi Pierce

Staff Writers

Just over one year ago, on May 13, 2012, a lightning strike ignited a fire in the Piedra area northwest of Pagosa Springs.

At first, U.S. Forest Service personnel let the blaze continue burning for the benefit of the natural resources, with the area previously identified as one in which fire would be allowed to play its natural role.

Several days of low relative humidity and high winds later, the fire — known as the Little Sand Fire — became an uncontained wildfire that had grown to several thousand acres and was being fought by hundreds of firefighters.

As the summer progressed, so did the fire, with roads, trails and campgrounds closed and evacuations called for some properties in the upper Piedra area.

By July 3, the fire had grown to 24,450 acres, with a cost of more than $6.7 million.

Then, the rains came. Monsoonal moisture drenched the fire, leaving only pockets of smoldering fuels, and all the resources were called off.

With the Little Sand Fire came knowledge. And that knowledge, while already proving useful, will be even more so should 2013 prove to be an active fire season.

Currently, the fire danger in Archuleta County is very high. According to U.S. Forest Service Fire Management Officer Steve Hentschel, after measuring the live fuel moisture, which is done bi-weekly, the grasses, at this point, are sucking up as much moisture as they can until they start dying out. The ponderosa pines and other tree species are starting to come out of hibernation and will also start drawing up more water from the soils.

“Live fuel moistures have their normal cycles they go through, and it really depends on how quick they come up to flush and then start receding, especially like your grasses,” Hentschel explained.

According to Hentschel, the grasses are as flush as they are going to be and running on 280 percent live fuel moisture. The ponderosa pine and other tree species are at their lowest point — 94 percent live fuel moisture, However, as the summer continues into the growing season they will begin drawing up more water.

Last year will also have an effect on this year’s conditions.

“It’s a lot like it was last year, except last year we were dry, so we’re going into it similar to last year but we’re sitting on an already dry foundation. This certainly concerns us, because if you’ve got the cumulative affect of being dry underneath and dry on top, it could be problematic,” said Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung.

“With the dry summer, and then we had a dry winter, now we’re coming in to the summer with our predictions of still being dry,” Hentschel explained.

“We were very high prior to a couple of weeks ago,” said Hentschel, “but now we’ve got green-up, the grass will start growing, the oak will start putting on leaves and all that, so they are starting to pump in the moisture.”

That moisture increase led to a brief period of moderate fire danger, before conditions were again deemed to be very dry.

According to Hentschel, what makes the fire conditions worse are heavy down dead material in the area, which the forest service calls “lag.” Due to last year’s dry environment, combined with the dry winter, at this time the heavy material is very dry. These materials hold fires for a long time.

According to Khung and Hentschel, Forest Service staff works with private and state entities to educate and work with the public on how to mitigate and prevent potential wildfires. Just this year, the Pagosa Ranger District partnered with local Firewise committees to implement the first Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) at a subdivision level in Archuleta County. Forest Service staff provided input and expertise for a CWPP at Echo Canyon Ranch.

“For the private landowners, any chance they can get to create or continue building defensible space is a good idea,” Khung explained. “It doesn’t have to occur at a certain time of the year. I just know in my house it’s whenever I can get after it and it’s a yearlong endeavor. But, defensible space is really important.”

“It’s a continual thing too,” said Hentschel, “Because typically what carries the fires are the fine fuels, which are your needle cast, your down dead leaves, or the cured grass, so you know when trees are dropping their leaves or needles, get them raked up. It’s a continual thing, and, like Kevin said, it’s not something that just happens once in a while. You can’t just do it one year and forget about it for five years.”

In June, the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership will work with local organizations such as Firewise and the Pagosa Ranger District to put together the Little Sand Driving Tour. The tour and accompanying meetings will educate and inform the public on the current status of the Little Sand area, and the science of fire and the ecosystem. Participants will talk about how elements in the community such as businesses, families and fire communities were affected by the Little Sand Fire.

“We want to talk with people from upper Hinsdale and discuss with them how it affected them, and all three aspects of that triangle, the natural, the social and economic, and have a dialogue,” Khung explained, “Because as we have said all along, during the course of Little Sand, is that fire is very much a component of the place we live in, and we, the Forest Service, have done an excellent job of suppressing those fires. But, in the course of suppressing those fires, all we have done is delay the inevitable, and in the course of that delay, our fires, I believe, will be at higher intensity, with perhaps longer durations.”

“The ecosystem is out of whack,” said Hentschel.

“So,” said Khung, “one of the questions that goes through my mind is, ‘Well, if not now, when?’”

Other fire mitigation projects include work with the long-term stewardship contract that will be used to help treat 45,000 tons of hazardous biofuels each year across 2,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest. The Forest Service will also perform prescribed burns, and remove vegetation from the forest.

“On the Little Sand, as the trail crews start to come on board, they will be out there working on the trails throughout that area,” Khung said, “We do have some dead trees, we will also have some sediment across the trails, so they are working on trying to restore those. We will be putting up some caps up along Mosca Road, because we know some of the trees are weakened and we want to keep the bugs out.

“One of the direct mitigations up there will be some weed treatment because we do have some bare soil and weeds are the first species that get established and we want to keep them out and keep the natural species there. The deer, the elk, even the permitted cows, they don’t want to eat thistle. So, we will do some weed treatment up there.

“If I could characterize Little Sand, I characterize it as a good fire. There is very little mitigation work that has to be done. It consumed the fuel loading on the ground, so that was a good thing. Yes, we do have some pockets of stand replacement where we took out a stand, but my perception, as well as a lot of my foresters’ perceptions and even Steve’s perception, is that we will start seeing some aspens coming up there. We’ll see some younger trees coming up there, and one of the issues that we have in the forests is we have a pretty uniform canopy. Every single tree is of the same age class. From an ecological sense as well as a fire sense, that is not a good thing to have. I want age class diversity.”

“My staff is more than willing to go to CWPP meetings to work with the state and private (owners), to try to educate the public, because there is a certain component of the public that I need help with as well.” Khung said. “Put your campfires out. On the board there are probably already a dozen responses to fire and of those dozen responses, maybe two are what I term natural starts, the other ten were human caused, anywhere from campfires to downed power lines.”

“If I had to predict this fire season I will say this: There will be smoke in the air,” Khung said. “I can’t tell you if it’s going to be eight days worth of smoke continuous, but I know at times there will be smoke in the air. Steve and I and the Forest Service will continue the struggle of trying to make a decision on when fire on the landscape is appropriate and when it’s not appropriate. And it always comes down to, at least in my mind, What are the values at risk? Because, just as the public is concerned with breathing smoke and threats to their private property, I face a concern every single day, as Steve does, putting firefighters, well-trained firefighters, out on the ground in situations where it’s damn near impossible to control risk and I expose them to life-and-death situations. So, not only am I struggling with the balance that fire has as a role in the ecosystem ... but there are risks to my firefighters.”

“One of the real positive things of Little Sand is Archuleta County has their emergency management blog, and we really want people to get on that blog,” Hentschel explained. “And on that we work with the county, and the fire district also works with the county, and they keep that thing updated on things like prescribed fire or wildfire, so the public’s not inundating 911 trying to get information. They go to that website and they have information, usually maps and you can see the area. It’s a great way to keep updated on fire activities, floods, anything emergency related. It’s about emergency preparedness.”,