Prescribed Fire on the GMUG National Forest

photo of several firefighters with torches

Firefighters managing a prescribed fire on the north Uncompahgre Plateau.


Prescribed fire is planned and designed to be incorporated into project work in areas where specific needs for fuels (vegetation) treatment or natural resource conditions will benefit from the use or re-introduction of fire into the ecosystem. These conditions take into account local and site weather, fuel types, fuel moisture, soil and atmospheric moisture, smoke dispersal and many other considerations.  Prescribed fires are only ignited in an area when all parameters meet the specific burn plan conditions

The National Fire Plan

One of the management objectives to meet the goals of the National Fire Plan (2000) is the use of prescribed (or managed) fire.  According to the 2013 Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests Fire Plan, “Prescribed fire will be utilized as a vegetative and fuels management technique where it is the most cost efficient and acceptable alternative to achieve management objectives.”

The National Fire Plan has four primary goals:

  • Improve fire prevention and suppression.
  • Reduce hazardous fuels.
  • Restore fire-adapted ecosystems.
  • Promote community assistance.

Prescribe Fire Plans: “Burn Plans”

Ground-disturbing projects on National Forest System lands undergo an environmental analysis process (NEPA) where the proposed project is identified and alternatives means of accomplishing that work are identified. During this process, the public has opportunities to comment, review and suggest changes to the project. Some of these projects include plans to perform prescribed burns to achieve certain conditions (objectives) on the land and require a “Burn Plan.”

The “Burn Plan” for a project incorporates information from the environmental analysis and addresses the necessary conditions to achieve those objectives. It addresses twenty different elements that are necessary to safely and effectively manage a prescribed burn, including an: ignition plan, holding plan, contingency plan, smoke management, objectives and prescriptions to name a few. Each “Burn Plan” is developed using the “Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide” that is employed by all federal agencies.

Burn plan objectives that are common to all prescribed fire plans and activities:

  • Provide for firefighter and public safety
  • Protect life and property from wildfire
  • Restore fire to its natural role in the ecosystem
  • Specific actions or parameters necessary to implement the project and achieve the desired outcome on the landscape

photo of flames along ground in pine forest

Monitoring prescribed fire:

Monitoring occurs at two phases of the prescribed burn, at ignition and post ignition. During the ignition phase, monitoring includes: observing smoke dispersal, fire behavior, and testing for appropriate weather conditions (based on the Burn Plan prescription) to ensure that conditions remain within the prescribed parameters. Post fire monitoring occurs when the project is completed and is important to determine if the burn objectives were met or if more treatment is needed in the area. Post ignition monitoring can take a number of years to make a determination.

image of fire fighter with drip torch burnign sage in background

Firefighter using a drip torch for ignition.

Implementation of a prescribed fire:

Prescribed burning is a labor-intensive process that can require multiple entries and efforts to complete the work. Various methods of ignition can be used, based on topography, fuel type and weather.  Some of the methods include using drip torches (canisters of mixed fuel carried by firefighters with an ignition torch attached), vari pistols (a “flare pistol” used to ignite areas at a distance) and terra torch (gelled fuel stored in barrels and dispensed through a hose and ignition wand) all completed by ground forces.  Aerial ignitions can also be used involving a helicopter outfitted with special equipment (helitorch and dispenser) used to light and distribute balls of fuel.

Conditions are monitored continuously while implementing the burn to ensure activities remain within the prescribed parameters. Data collection includes fuel moisture, smoke dispersal, national weather information and information from remote automatic weather stations (RAWS) to monitor any potential changes in weather conditions.

Smoke from prescribed burning is always a concern and its effect can be far-reaching. The Forest Service works with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, Smoke Management Program to identify conditions to manage emissions and determine the necessary parameters for ignition and smoke dispersal/management.

When Smoke Gets in Your Way! Details of the Dave Wood Prescribed Fire (2015)


Fire Behavior and Ecological Restoration
As part of its fire research, the Forest Service captures video footage of actual wildfires in progress. By employing specially designed heat resistant camera boxes, the agency has been able to document surprising fire behavior.