Area fire management officials look to summer

Predicting another intense wildfire season

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Annual pre-season fire planning efforts have determined that wildfires will be likely across the American West this summer as an ongoing drought leaves soils dry and forest fuels plentiful. As a result, those living in or visiting the Gunnison Basin will most likely experience some impacts from summer wildfires whether it be smoke coming in from other regions or potential actual fires in the area.

The Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest and other public lands managers and fire protection agencies met virtually with Gunnison County commissioners in an annual spring planning discussion on Tuesday, April 27 to prepare for what is expected to be an active wildfire season ahead. While there are no fire restrictions at this time, officials advised that several restrictions are likely to come throughout the summer and fall season and reviewed how that process works in coordination with all overlapping jurisdictions and with careful consideration.

Pat Medina, fire management officer for the Gunnison Ranger District, explained, “This is our opportunity with the U.S. Forest Service to annually reach out to community leaders and key folks within the community… and talk a little bit about what we can expect under current conditions for an outlook for 2021.”

Gunnison District ranger Matt McCombs said these pre-season meetings are central to share information and stimulate dialogue, “especially if we get into a position where we are experiencing a large [fire] incident on the district,” he said.

Overall approach
Medina said he does not expect to see any changes to the current drought status overall in Western Colorado. “We did not see good recovery for soils,” he said of the most recent Gunnison Basin snow water equivalent measurements. That includes a 54 percent snow-water equivalent Snotel measurement near Crested Butte, the lowest reading in the area.

According to forecasting maps showing significant wildland fire potential outlooks for May 2021 through July 2021 across the Western U.S., produced by the Predictive Services of the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, areas to the south of Montrose show the highest wildfire potential in the state. The Four Corners area begins to see higher fire potential starting in May, which is forecast to continue throughout the summer. And in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico it is already fire season. Medina said he expects to see many agencies competing for resources to fight fires.

Looking at 2021, the Forest Service is prepared to continue its COVID prevention protocols including small, dispersed fire camps and remote incident management. In a fire chief letter of intent for Wildland Fire-2021, the USFS stated, “Last year’s record-setting acreage, intensity and duration of wildfire activity, layered onto the backdrop of COVID-19, tested our commitment to service and safety as never before.” The letter also stated that the agency would continue working to improve the wildland fire system in 2021.

McCombs explained that includes re-initiating dialogue about fire management practices that don’t always involve putting firefighters in direct attack approach. He said some people think this means they are suggesting they aren’t going to fight fires at all. Acknowledging that our human nature is to want to put fires out as soon as possible, McCombs said in some cases that can delay the impacts and make them eventually worse. He said the priorities are firefighter safety, structural safety and sometimes “holding hands and taking risks together,” for ecological reasons and managing for climate change as well.

McCombs said it is more about evaluating what is worth jumping on right away to extinguish or control, and what is worthwhile to monitor and allow some burning to occur. He said between last year’s intensity and COVID restrictions, “We really stretched people to their absolute limits.”

He said there is a multi-agency, multi-state vision “to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed, use fire where allowable, manage our natural resources and, as a nation, live with wildland fire.” As a country, and certainly as a state, he said there is a need for alignment with this approach.

Fire restrictions?
In 2020, the first of several fire restrictions went into effect in Gunnison County in early April. Gunnison County commissioner chair person Jonathan Houck asked the Forest Service and Gunnison County Fire Council to review for the public’s sake how they arrive at their decisions on whether to enact a fire restriction on local areas.

The Forest Service, BLM, county and local jurisdictions all try to move together, predicting the hazard and responding proactively rather than once it is already an emergency, McCombs replied.

He and commissioner Houck said they are hearing from people in anticipation of high visitation to the local backcountry again this summer. “That fire restriction piece becomes important to people, especially when they see such huge visitation and occupancy numbers across the forest.”

McCombs said it could be challenging to make science-based decisions that are both ecological and also socially responsible. The plan is to use an expanded seasonal workforce, and continue combining forces with the various interagency committees and conservation organizations that combine outreach with preventive measures. “We are trying to leverage every resource we can,” he said.

During 2020, local Forest Service resources responded to 19 total wildfires from May 7 through November 3. The agency also assisted Gunnison Fire Department, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service with fires. The majority of wildfires last year covered less than 1 acre in total area, but three were significant: the 3-acre Mill Creek fire on August 17, and both the 8-acre Coal Fire and the 105-acre Poison Fire on November 3. Some local resources also went to help fight wildfires in other parts of the state and in Wyoming.

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