Updated: February 9, 2014 at 4:08 am
Recent heavy snows throughout the Pikes Peak region and beyond have given officials an opportunity to burn hundreds of slash piles that pose a fire danger in Colorado forests.
The piles come from mitigation work to rid the forests of dead or decayed trees and dangerously dry fuels covering the forest floor after years of drought conditions.
"It's go time when the conditions are right," said Jonathan Bruno, the operations director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. "We'll start burning around the clock to get these things taken care of."
Bruno paid keen attention to every weather report last week and eagerly watched the air flow patterns in hopes of alerting his crews to optimal conditions and a chance to burn without sending smoke into residential areas.
CUSP, which requires at least 6 inches of snow on the ground and air flows that will send smoke skyward, expects to burn about 2,000 slash piles in areas north of Divide and east of Woodland Park before fire season hits in late spring. Bruno said his organization burned only eight piles during the winter of 2012-13 because of minimal snowfall and dangerously dry conditions.
"We want to minimize the risk out there," he said.
The U.S. Forest Service also has been in the burning business since much-needed snow began dumping on the area in December.
The Colorado Springs area has received almost 19 inches of snow since Dec. 1 with more than 13 inches of that falling in January, according to the National Weather Service. Higher elevations have gotten much more. Parts of Woodland Park received more than a foot in the last week of January. In that same time frame, popular ski areas received at least 3 or 4 feet.
"Snow depth is just a handy precaution," said Al Hahn of the Pike National Forest Ranger District. "It creates a perfect fire line. You're not going to have the sparks and flames getting away from you."
Hahn said Forest Service crews have been burning since December in areas around Divide, Woodland Park and Monument. He estimates crews have eliminated about 500 piles this winter, but added that many more need to be incinerated to help reduce the fuels in the forest.
"We have a backlog of thousands of piles from ongoing work that we've been doing," Hahn said, noting that the Forest Service did not burn a single pile in the winter of 2012-13.
Officials at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument said they, too, have a backlog of piles from hazard fuels and hazard tree mitigation projects over the last few years.
The fossil beds, run by the National Parks Service, plans to begin pile burning operations Feb. 18 "when weather conditions allow." In a recent news release, officials said the burning operations would reduce fuel buildup from the monument and "reduce the intensity of any future wildland fires that could potentially burn onto private lands."
Sarah Gallup, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said groups and people who want to conduct slash burns must follow fire control and smoke permit guidelines set by local fire departments and health agencies.
The smoke permits are meant to limit the effects of smoke on people. The fire control permits could have restrictions on days, times, weather, amount of burning and required equipment, according to the CDPHE's "Using Prescribed Fire in Colorado" guidelines.
While there are no hard and fast rules for size of slash piles, the CDPHE recommends keeping pile width small to minimize the "footprint" in the forest. The guidelines suggest, however, to build burn piles tall to decrease smoke and provide easier burning. Gallup said those interested in burning must contact local agencies to learn about requirements.
Officials are eager to continue recent burn activity, especially after two disastrous fires hit the Pikes Peak region in 2012 and 2013. The Black Forest fire that sparked in northern El Paso County on June 11 burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people. The Waldo Canyon blaze began in late June of 2012, destroyed 347 homes in western Colorado Springs, burned more than 18,000 acres, and claimed two lives.
Officials hope the snow will continue. Hahn said his crews have burned mostly in areas with more than a foot of snow on the ground, something they haven't seen for a while.
"We're certainly way ahead of where we were last year," Hahn said. "Last year, I remember you could ride your bike around the forest this time of year."