Hold your fire
It doesn’t appear weather conditions will line up this spring for a prescribed burn on Animas City Mountain, intended to create a buffer around the City of Durango.
“It may be unlikely we burn this spring at this point, but we haven’t called it off yet,” Ian Barrett, fire management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, said. “We’re remaining optimistic favorable conditions will develop.”
Prescribed burns are one of the most effective tactics to reduce the threat of a larger, out-of-control wildfire. Just on the northwest edge of Durango, the 700-acre planned fire on Animas City Mountain was seen as a way to create a buffer and protection around the city itself.
But the weather so far this spring has made lighting a prescribed fire too dangerous, Barrett said. Fuels (such as dead grass and vegetation) on the ground are too dry, trees have yet to green up and, oh, the wind. That horrible, horrible windy wind.
“We have parameters for this prescribed fire that serve as the roadmap; so it’s not a judgment call,” Barrett said. “But the right conditions just haven’t been there. And of course that burn is so central, the stakes are obviously high.”
It’s no secret that wildfires are threatening communities across the West at a more alarming rate (and year-round now, it seems). And the City of Durango is no exception: during the 416 Fire in 2018, there was the real possibility of the wildfire moving into town.
According to the Colorado State Forest Service, around 53,800 people in La Plata County – about 97% of the population – live in a cross section where humans have built in forests, known as the wildland-urban interface.
In recent years, though, there has been a robust effort to create barriers and protections in vulnerable areas. The Animas City Mountain burn is by far the BLM’s most ambitious project, which is why it is so important to be extra cautious, Barrett said.
“There is, of course, an element of the unknown with fire (even prescribed fires),” Barrett said. “And it’s something we take extraordinarily seriously.”
Conditions need to line up by mid-May – after that, the BLM can’t ignite a prescribed fire due to protections for migratory birds. In that case, the agency will start to look toward fall 2022 or spring 2023.
“There’s not a lot of pressure to move forward,” Barrett said. “But it has to be within a set of parameters, so we’ll be ready in the fall or following spring if conditions don’t materialize.”
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