The Bureau of Land Management’s prescribed burn on Animas City Mountain this spring has been delayed as a result of dry and windy conditions and will likely be postponed until fall at the earliest.
“It’s such a tight window and it’s where it’s at (on the edge of Durango), so we want to make sure we’re careful,” said Deana Harms, a fire management specialist with the BLM’s Southwest Colorado Fire & Aviation Management Unit.
The nearly 500-acre forest treatment was originally slated for a one-month window that ends May 15. The BLM partnered with other federal, state and local agencies to conduct the burn, which was set to take place over two to three days and at which time the agency would close the mountain and its trails for public safety.
However, with dry and windy conditions over the last month and early snowmelt this spring, the BLM announced on April 21 on InciWeb, a federal interagency emergency information system, that it would postpone the burn until more moisture fell.
“Staffing wasn’t a problem to do the burn,” Harms said. “It’s definitely the weather and the fuel conditions. We had folks available, but we just didn’t have the conditions, and I think everyone around us is looking at the same thing.”
In New Mexico, at least one of the major wildfires burning since last month started as a prescribed burn.
San Juan National Forest has similarly struggled to perform the prescribed burns it aimed to execute this spring.
“We have not been successful in what we call broadcast prescribed fires this spring,” said Scott Owen, a spokesman for San Juan National Forest, which are the low-intensity managed fires that creep along the ground.
The forest has managed to conduct pile burns around Dolores, but conditions have likewise prevented the U.S. Forest Service from carrying out large-scale prescribed fires.
“It’s not safe with all the wind that we’ve had, and it’s gotten dry,” Owen said. “(Forest managers’) No. 1 concern is public safety and firefighter safety.”
Teams regularly test vegetation for moisture, weighing and cooking samples in ovens to calculate the moisture stored within the plants, Harms said.
If Durango and the region get rain, crews will have a chance to do Animas City Mountain and other prescribed burns. But with less than two weeks left within the current window, weather forecasts do not point to improving conditions.
The National Weather Service forecasts slight chances of precipitation in Durango on Tuesday and Wednesday with temperatures increasing throughout the week and reaching 80 degrees Saturday. AccuWeather’s 10-day forecast for Durango shows warm and dry weather.
“It just depends on how much moisture we’re getting, and it doesn’t sound like there’s a whole lot,” Harms said.
With unfavorable conditions likely to persist, Harms said the BLM would pivot to other prescribed burns at higher elevations or in areas with better conditions. The West Dolores Rim area near Egnar on the border between San Miguel and Dolores counties and Sims Mesa near Montrose are two areas the agency is considering targeting.
If the BLM and Forest Service are unsuccessful in their spring burns, the agencies will then look to the fall to potentially complete some of the burns, Harms and Owen said.
Burning Animas City Mountain in the fall would have at least one advantage. The BLM has divided Animas City Mountain into seven “burn units,” but it was not going to burn the two most northern units this spring to protect peregrine falcons and other nesting birds.
Conducting the burn in the fall would allow the BLM to also treat the two units. But the agency could also run into challenges if wildfires this summer strain firefighting resources.
“In the fall, we’ll look at (Animas City Mountain), it just depends on once again conditions and then availability,” Harms said. “If we’re busy nationally, we might not have a whole lot of resources locally.”
If the fall does not work, the BLM will then turn to next spring.
A similar pattern of postponement has emerged for some of San Juan National Forest’s prescribed burns in recent years.
“Some of the prescribed burns have been on the books for a couple of years just because of weather conditions, staffing and safety,” Owen said.
However, this year’s delays have benefited the Forest Service by allowing San Juan National Forest to send support to early season wildfires in New Mexico and Arizona.
While the BLM still plans to tackle the prescribed burn on Animas City Mountain, environmental conditions will always outweigh the agency’s schedule.
“It all comes down to the prescription. If we’re not within those parameters, we just can’t burn,” Harms said. “We want to meet our objectives and keep the public safe, too.”