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Working with ‘good fire’

Fire managers in Southwest Colorado are changing they way they respond to wildfires
Jacob Bucher bucks a log as Hunter Archer, left, and Austin Ash, all with Miller Timber Services, get ready to haul the debris away. on Nov. 3, the crew was building fire line north of the Trail Springs Fire, near Pagosa Springs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

FOREST SERVICE ROAD 863 – The fire crew moves methodically. Sawyers liberate bushes from their root systems and buck logs into manageable rounds as a swarm of swampers surround each, hauling the debris away into heaping piles.

There are roughly 18 firefighters from a Miller Timber Services crew, out of Philomath, Oregon, building fireline near the Trail Springs Fire, just 12 miles as the crow flies northwest of Pagosa Springs.

They work with deliberate urgency, removing all woody debris, even brush the size of a finger, that sits within 6 feet of the ground and 90 feet of the road’s west side.

“When fire comes through, that keeps it on the ground so it can’t climb up the ladder into the canopy where it would be able to easily pass over the road,” a spokeswoman for the Forest Service explains.

Although the firefighters are decked out in matching Nomex flame-resistant clothing, one thing is notably absent from the scene: fire.

When the light breeze shifts just right, there’s a whiff of smoke. Hazy air lingers in certain stands of ponderosa pines, but there’s little sign of the fire smoldering less than a mile away.

That was Nov. 3. There were 114 personnel tending to the fire across the forest that day.

In the 15 days since the Trail Springs Fire had been reported, it had grown from 1 acre to 1,251 acres. In the 15 days to follow, it would grow just another 100 acres before petering out.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about firefighters building a containment line nearby, but not directly abutting a wildfire. But the goals firefighters worked to accomplish on Trail Springs were the product of a new strategic approach to fire management on the San Juan National Forest.

It takes two firefighters several hours to put out a smoldering log without water. Fire managers on the San Juan National Forest are increasingly working to adopt an approach that allows them to accomplish both risk reduction and fuels reduction goals. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Direct versus indirect containment

The response to Trail Springs, which allowed the lightning-caused blaze to grow significantly and extended the period of time in which smoke lingered over Pagosa Springs, is known as “indirect containment.”

The term refers to the way firefighters prevent a wildfire from spreading.

Direct containment involves halting the fire in place by eliminating fuel alongside a blaze and using aircraft to drop water and retardant. When practicing indirect containment, firefighters use existing features, such as roads or trails, to create fuel breaks further away from the fire’s edge that will halt the fire upon its arrival.

The two strategies stand in subtle contrast to one another. Both involve stopping fire by removing fuel, but they differ in where those lines are built.

Firefighters rely on both tactics to suppress fires, and the use of indirect containment on Trail Springs was nothing novel. The goal of the strategy and the philosophy behind its deployment, however, was.

Indirect containment is not a hands-off approach. Personnel are still engaged, on the ground and working to accomplish a curated set of goals.

“It's still a suppression strategy using a different set of tactics,” said San Juan National Forest Spokeswoman Lorena Williams.

Still, the topic is a thorny one for the agency.

The Forest Service has struggled to combat a false sociopolitical narrative that it has a “let it burn” policy and has become mired in criticism over its choices when incidents have gone awry.

In 2021, federal fire managers opted to “observe” a small fire in California, which later exploded, incinerating over 68,000 acres of forest and three homes. The Tamarack Fire prompted angry backlash and widespread criticism from politicians and the public.

Firefighters with a Miller Timber Services crew work on a fire line on near the Trail Springs Fire, 12 miles as the crow flies northwest of Pagosa Springs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For a century, the public has been conditioned to see fire as a destructive force and a threat to private property. To treat it as anything else, to respond with anything less than the proverbial cavalry, can be a difficult pill to swallow.

“It looks different and sounds different from everything we've done in recent memory as an agency,” said Williams. “And so the public is saying ‘Where are the air tankers?’”

However, there’s a crosswind over the political landscape blowing in a greater acceptance for something that many fire practitioners innately know.

“We need more good fire on the landscape,” says Pat Seekins, the prescribed fire and fuels program manager for the SJNF.

By “good fire,” he means the kind of fire to which the forest is adapted. It’s the kind that lowers the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires that raze neighborhoods and bear names forever emblazoned in collective memory.

Indirect containment, when appropriate, can facilitate good fire and reduce risk to firefighters.

“Our risk reduction strategy and our fuels reduction strategy are in alignment,” Williams explained.

Strategic alignment

Using fire for beneficial fuels reduction is not new.

Indigenous people stewarding the land before colonization knew the benefits of wildfire and the critical role that “good fire” plays in maintaining the landscape.

Seekins and Williams are hesitant to say that the agency has been fighting fire “wrong” – it’s not fair to judge past actions with knowledge of the present, they say – but nationally, the agency is reckoning with the fact the culture of fire suppression is not working particularly well.

In a document outlining the USFS response to the national wildfire crisis, the agency recognized the need for “a paradigm shift” in the culture to move “away from business as usual.”

In Southwest Colorado, the Forest Service and other agencies have ramped up prescribed burning efforts as of late.

Burning never stopped in other parts of the country, Williams points out. About 80% of acres burned under a USFS prescription are in the American South. But in Colorado, the forests have suffered from a lack of fire and are critically “behind.”

When forest managers refer to a lack of fire, they refer to “good fire.” On the Southwest Colorado landscape, good fire removes most surface fuels and understory and limits mortality of larger diameter trees.

“The way that we get forest health to rebound is by acres burning,” Williams said.

In fiscal year 2023 and the first part of 2024, the SJNF reported over 16,000 acres of beneficial fire from both prescribed burns and natural blazes.

Firefighters with a Miller Timber Services crew work on a fire line on near the Trail Springs Fire, 12 miles as the crow flies northwest of Pagosa Springs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But Seekins says the forest needs to burn more – a lot more – to address the wildfire crisis.

“Roughly 30,000 to 40,000 acres we need to be treating with fire annually to even start to catch up,” he said.

To begin to move in that direction, people like Seekins are looking for opportunities when the need for fuels reduction aligns with the need to protect firefighters and assets, such as private property or structures.

If a fire starts in the middle of the forest, away from valued assets, Seekins asks: what is it threatening?

Often, the answer is nothing.

Rather than risk firefighters’ safety by sending crews deep into snag-dense forests to build hand lines around the fire, managers are increasingly considering an indirect alternative.

Deploy the acronyms

When Trail Springs was first reported on Oct. 19, crews initially rushed to put it out. The fire sparked in a remote part of the forest, thick with deadly snags in rugged terrain on the north side of the West Fork Devil Creek drainage.

“That's the normal response that’s been ingrained in us for 20 years – where are your helicopters, dozers, whatever – we put the fire out,” Seekins said.

He was the incident commander for the first several days of Trail Springs operations. After firefighters initially failed to contain the blaze, those in charge of developing the response began to rethink their approach.

Like most processes in Forest Service and firefighting, leaders craft plans through a rigorously regimented process in which they deploy a dizzying assortment of acronym-ed tools.

Seekins and his colleagues relied on a new tool named the “Incident Strategic Alignment Process” to facilitate their decision making. The interagency tool, which is in widespread use this year for the first time, helps fire managers develop and communicate a response plan.

When using an indirect containment strategy, firefighters take advantage of existing roads and natural fuel breaks rather than building lines from scratch. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The ISAP relies on four pillars: values at risk, strategy and strategic actions, risks to responders and the probability of success.

By incorporating fire modeling tools and the Risk Management Assistance Dashboard into the conversation, Seekins and his colleagues concluded that indirect containment would have a high probability of reducing fuels without risking the safety of firefighters or any assets.

“ (The ISAP) creates this alignment process that really provides a communication tool that we can let our stakeholders, let our constituents, let our partners, let the firefighters on the ground understand what we're doing on the landscape and why,” said Scott Bovey, assistant director for safety, fire and aviation management, and risk management officer in the Rocky Mountain Region.

Fire managers also take into account future risk and the likelihood of an area catching fire again. Trail Springs was the perfect example.

Starting slow

Seekins says the learning started on June 28 with Chris Mountain, the first fire to break out on the San Juan this season.

Conditions for fuels reduction were good and the nearby assets were easy to defend, he said.

But the proposal to contain the fire indirectly “got lost in the shuffle.” Seven crews of hotshots showed up, aircraft resources were deployed, and the fire was put out.

“We had 515 people on a 511-acre fire,” Seekins said with a pointed chuckle.

Chris Mountain cost over $9 million to put out.

But it wasn’t done burning. Trail Springs broke out in the adjacent drainage, as if to say ‘I’m not done.’

The Chris Mountain Fire burned started in June right next to where the Trail Springs Fire would start in October. The burn scar from Chris Mountain was an impenetrable fireline to which firefighters working Trail Springs could retreat if necessary. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The burn scar from Chris Mountain proved to be more useful than any phalanx of firefighters. It was an impenetrable fireline to which firefighters working Trail Springs could retreat if necessary.

By the time Trail Springs started, the SJNF had already gone through what Williams called a “trust-building exercise” with regional leadership.

The exercise occurred after lightning struck a tree on July 30 inside of a unit that firefighters had already prepared for an upcoming prescribed burn. With firelines already in place, the forest got the thumbs-up to contain the blaze within those lines.

Rather than put the Dry Lake Fire out, stopping the blaze at just a quarter acre, firefighters allowed the flames to burn out fuels over 1,300 acres.

“It showed that it could be done, which then built this momentum,” Williams said.

When the Hope Fire broke out in a prescribed burn unit near McPhee Reservoir, fire managers took the same approach; the blaze reduced fuels on 1,290 acres of forest.

“It just got easier as we went on,” Seekins said. “Dry Lake set the stage.”

With trust established and strategic priorities aligned, Seekins once again sought approval to indirectly contain a wildfire when Trail Springs broke out Oct. 19.

A helicopter prevented fire from crossing the West Fork Devil Creek, and crews fortified fireline along the north and eastern boundaries of the fire, where private property lay a few miles away.

By the time Trail Springs went out, it had burned 1,358 with good fire.

Standing amid a din of chain saws on Forest Service Road 863, the road used as fireline on the northeastern side, Miller Timber Crew Squad Boss Adam Smith was prideful of the work his crew was doing.

“Whether there be structures or people’s property, we’re still implementing everything we can to save that,” he said.

As he turned away, anxious to return to his job, he added “you just gotta love it.”


Firefighters with a Miller Timber Services crew work on a fire line on near the Trail Springs Fire, 12 miles as the crow flies northwest of Pagosa Springs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

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