The Bighorn/Stateline Prescribed Fire – A Cross-region Success Story

Firefighters in yellow shirts and green pants form a semicircle around the burn boss standing at mapStraddling the Colorado/New Mexico border the Bighorn/Stateline prescribed fire was designed to reduce heavy surface fuel loading, improve forest health, and rejuvenate traditionally open forested areas. Ponderosa and pinyon pine are intermixed with the Douglas-fir and white fir in a forest that frequently gives way to open grass meadows. In this area, where the vegetation scheme was influenced by frequent wildfires over the millennia, the return of fire is a much-needed ecological process.

The Conejos Peak Ranger District (USFS Rocky Mountain Region) leads the effort on this 1600-acre project that crosses onto lands managed by the Tres Piedras Ranger District of the Carson National Forest (USFS Southwestern Region). Many leaders and specialists from both Forests have been invested throughout the planning and implementation process.

Previous Treatment

Left side shows slash on forest floor. Parallel trees are point of reference. Right side shows charrPre-commercial thinning of stands within the Bighorn/Stateline burn unit was conducted in 2014 in preparation for this burn operation. The work was accomplished using contract crews with chainsaws. This preparatory thinning reduced stand density, reduced presence of insect and disease damage, favored fire resistant tree species, and prepared the fuel bed, all by cutting, lopping, and scattering trees less than 8 inches in diameter. Although the intent was to burn 3-5 years after the thinning operation, the extended cure time facilitated better consumption of the large (greater than 3 inches diameter) thinning activity generated surface fuels.

Burn Days

A ring of fire burns needles and pinecones on the forest floor, spreading concentrically from the ceActive lighting took place on 560 acres of the project area from May 27-29, 2021. This burn employed a spot firing approach as a primary tactic to allow numerous fires to spread slowly and burn the large concentrations of slash. One lighter worked near the road which acted as a control line on this fire. Every 30-50 feet another lighter was stationed increasingly deeper into the unit. Using the spot ignitions approach, the tip of the torch and a dot of fire was applied to areas of heavy needle cast or thinning slash. Progression through the unit proceeded at a steady and purposeful pace.

Culturally Modified Trees

Scattered throughout the burn unit, several Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) are found. These trees are historic legacies that hold knowledge of the past and the people who lived here before. It is understood that many of the CMT’s may eventually be affected by wildfires. For now, the low-intensity fire treatment should serve to make them more resistant to damaging effects.

 Fire burns under a Culturally Modified Tree (ponderosa pine) with firefighters in the background.A methodical process for protecting the trees was outlined in the burn plan. The larger debris and logs are removed from near the trunk and under the lowest branches. Thick concentrations of pine needles are lightly raked from near the trunk. To reduce high heat pulses, fires are strategically set in several locations around the tree so that many fires begin consuming the light fuels. Holding crews closely watch to see if the fire will burn hotter than desired. When it did get too hot, water was applied from either a bladder bag or an ATV with a pump and water tank. After that, the tree was left to allow the bark to get scorched and the lower branches be fire pruned, just as mother nature has done for thousands of years.

What is Next?

This prescribed fire occurred within a landscape where an increasing investment with partners is being made in order to identify forest health and wildland urban interface related treatment needs. We will continue to work together to meet these needs. The landscape is encompassed by the Rio Chama Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration project and engages multiple, diverse partners in planning and participating in future management. Future treatments in the area are on the horizon.

As we continue to treat fuels on different large land jurisdictions, the plea is for homeowners to be heavily engaged in treating their individual properties, taking responsibility for protecting their home and property in anticipation of wildfire occurring on the landscape. Some local communities have worked with Colorado State Forestry to become Firewise communities, showing a solid investment in being proactive.

Treating the landscape and its valuable natural resources, while protecting life and property, is a multi-faceted and critical challenge. Little by little, project by project, we can make a difference – together.

Read the May 29, 2021 Land, Water and People article A day on a prescribed fire.