For many, Tuesday’s snow meant throwing on an extra layer for trick-or-treating. For wildfire managers with the Pike National Forest, the fresh flakes signaled a chance for wildfire mitigation.
“We have hundreds of piles (of wood and branches) waiting to be burned,” said Dawn Sanchez, the fire prevention technician for the Pikes Peak Ranger District. “Some have been there for a few years waiting for the right conditions, so when we get weather like we got today with moisture that will sit for a couple of days, we are able to get in and burn those.”
The slash piles, which look like tepees of stacked timber, are scattered across the national forest. Much of the focus is on areas near the Pikes Peak Highway — including areas near Catamount Reservoir, Crowe Gulch, Crystal Reservoir and Manitou Reservoir — though the Forest Service also reported burning piles at the Lake George Station and on Tarryall Road.
Smoke may be visible from the fires but are within the limits set forth by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division.
“Where we can get into, and wherever we’ll have the most success is where we’re going to burn,” Sanchez said.
Once incinerated, the piles decrease the density of vegetation so that, if a fire ran through, it burns at a lower intensity. Cooler blazes are much easier to control for firefighters and more closely mimic naturally-occurring fires that sparked in forests before human intervention, Sanchez said.
Even if the mounds sit for months or years at a time on the forest floor, they provide for safer conditions compared with dense standing trees.
“The piles change the continuity of the fuels even when they haven’t been burned,” Sanchez said. “Rather than one, big, long, wide area of continuous fuel on the ground, the piles are stacked in a small open area where the flames will go up and hopefully not catch any other trees on fire.”
This week’s burning operations are not isolated to the Pikes Peak region. National forests across the state are jumping at the chance to ignite their dry fuels, from the White River National Forest near Vail to the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests near Gunnsion.
The Rio Grande National Forest in the south central part of the state is addressing piles in all three of its districts. The forest is an Interagency Fire Management Unit, so it may also target piles in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“We’re relieved and glad to see the snow,” said Dan Dallas, forest supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest. “With the dry winter and long and arduous fire season this past year, we’re glad we can begin to catch up with some of the things we fell behind on due to the drought, including pile burning.”
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