ST. GEORGE – Over the hot summer months, wildland firefighters work to establish, reinforce and hold the line around wildfires, managing them as they remove excess fuels from the forest floor, and making these portions of the forest healthier and safer for visitors.
“Wildfire is a commodity that we can’t afford to live without,” said Dave Robinson, Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon National Park fuels specialist. “So we do our best to manage these naturally-caused fires by manipulating the fire and keeping it at the low-and-slow intensity we want so nature can run its course.”
This natural disturbance process, Robinson said, allows fire to reduce excess fuels, lessen the risk of future high-intensity wildfires and allow fire to return to the ecosystem safely and effectively in an environment that needs fire to remain healthy.
Objectives for a lightning-caused wildfire can call for full suppression, allowing the fire to take its natural course or a combination of the two. However, this decision can be challenging because it includes a number of complexities firefighters must take into account when planning these operations.
Such complexities can include landscape, terrain and weather, Robinson said. Other complexities to consider are public health risks and values at risk, such as historic landmarks, power lines, communication towers, local businesses and privately-owned properties in or near the location of the wildfire, also referred to as the Wildland-Urban Interface or the transition zone between unoccupied land and human development.
Managing the blaze
When conditions are right and deemed appropriate to manage, management action objectives often include returning fire to a fire-adapted ecosystem and reducing accumulated fuels on the forest floor; recycling of nutrients into the soil; enhancing wildlife habitat; and protecting the area from future high-intensity wildland fires.
In addition to reducing fuel surface loads on the ground, Robinson said, “it is necessary to open the tree canopy and reduce understory tree densities in the planning area, resulting in a mosaic of patches and corridors of trees and diversity of distribution and abundance of different plant and animal communities and species within the area covered by the LRMP.”
On the Burnt Complex fires this summer, Robinson said, this was accomplished by reducing the number of pole-sized trees, a term used to describe trees 6 inches in diameter or less.
Burnt Complex and Locust Fire progress
Over the last six weeks, wildland firefighters worked to establish, reinforce and hold the line around the 3,915-acre planning area on the Burnt Complex fire. They successfully achieved this management goal on Aug. 5.
Earlier in this wildfire season, firefighters also successfully managed the Locust Fire, which consumed more than 3,227 acres of excess pine litter and dead woody debris on the forest floor.
“Collectively,” Robinson said, “I can safely estimate both these wildfires removed approximately 5 to 10 tons per acre of excess fuels from the forest floor, making these portions of our forest healthier, more resilient to future wildfires and overall safer for those visiting the forest.”
Caution in the hot spots
Both the Burnt Complex and the Locust Fire continue to be in monitor and patrol status, and fire managers are asking forest visitors to avoid entering the recently burned area as interior fuels may still be putting out heat and smoke.
“Successful management of these lightning-caused fires starts with communication and information. Firefighter and public safety is always the most important consideration as part of that process,” said North Zone Fire Management Officer Ed Hiatt.
“We want our visitors to understand that even though a recently burned area may look like a safe place to explore, it isn’t,” Hiatt said. “There may be fire-weakened tree hazards overhead or stump-hole hazards on the ground, which can cause serious injury, so it is always best to be aware of your surroundings, be on the lookout for such hazards and use extreme caution if hiking or camping in the vicinity.”
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