Fresh snow and cool temperatures made for perfect burning conditions Saturday along the lower portions of Animas Mountain.
Military veterans working with the San Juan Public Lands Center set fire to about 180 slash piles that were cut and gathered this summer as part of a forest-thinning project.
“It works like a dream; no fire danger,” said Ann Bond, spokeswoman with the agency.
And it looked like a dream. Thick, gray smoke spewed from dozens of bonfire-like piles in a snow-covered landscape.
The veterans were hired earlier this year as part of the Veterans Green Corps, a national program to help returning veterans transition to civilian life while conserving public lands.
The San Juan Public Lands Center used funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2010 to employ veterans on fuels-reduction projects.
This summer, the veterans hand-thinned 27 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands that border Dalla Mountain Park northwest of Durango. They created 663 slash piles that needed to cure – or dry out – before being set ablaze.
The burning was done after a fresh snowfall to ensure the fires didn’t spread. The bonfires were invisible from town because of the snow and fog in the air.
The veteran crew started about 9 a.m. and will revisit the ash piles today to make sure they are all extinguished.
They used drip torches to set the piles on fire and hand tools to tend to the blazes.
It was rewarding for the veterans to revisit the forest during the late fall. They worked in 95-degree heat this summer with chain saws and hand tools to clear the thick vegetation.
“It’s kind of more satisfying to come back and burn these damn piles,” said Ross Schumaker, a crew leader who served in the Marine Corps, including two tours in Iraq.
“Burning is a lot funner; definitely not as hot,” said Sarah Castaneda, who served a tour in Iraq with the Army. “I hated putting the piles together, so it’s nice to burn them.”
It also is rewarding to work alongside fellow veterans, they said. They feel safe in each other’s company, relate well to each other and can share their experiences.
“We all get along really well,” Schumaker said. “We all go out afterwards and have a beer at the VFW or wherever.
“It’s like a wilderness therapy out here for a lot of people,” he added.
The Veterans Green Corps has a level of structure that is common in military life, said Mike Bremer, who served one tour in Iraq with the Army Infantry.
“We all know chain-of-command and how that works, and none of us are strangers to hard work,” Bremer said.
The San Juan Public Lands Center is taking the program a step further by teaching the veterans firefighting skills. Many plan to become full-time firefighters in the future.
In addition to Animas Mountain, the veterans have helped burn about 3,600 slash piles in the Haviland Lake, Electra Lake and Chris Park areas, said Shawna Legarza, fire-management officer with the San Juan Public Lands Center.
“They’re so excited to finally come in and burn the piles,” she said.
Many people prefer hand-thinning over hydromowing, because it looks nicer, Bond said. But one of the byproducts of hand-thinning is slash piles that need to be burned, which creates smoke.
Federal fire managers work closely with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division during burns. The burn took place early so the smoke would disperse by nightfall.
Hydromowing creates mulch, and therefore burning isn’t necessary.
Hand-thinning takes more time and is more labor-intensive than hydromowing, but hand-thinning is needed in areas that are too steep for the hydromower.
Forest thinning around urban hubs creates a “defensible space,” which helps protect life and property from wildfire. It also is beneficial for the forest, Legarza said.
“This helps with protecting our community, so it’s a great thing to have happen,” she said. “And it’s even better using the veterans. They served our country, so we need to give them tools to come back into civilian life.”