Forest supervisor: Why we’re doing what we are in Sugarloaf Fire
Lightning started the Sugarloaf Fire on the Arapaho National Forest near the South Fork of Darling Creek, just south of Byers Peak Wilderness, on June 28. The area is rugged, steep and remote with no roads for access and no safety zones for firefighters. Complicating matters, nearly 20 years ago this area was heavily impacted by mountain pine beetle, leaving a vast landscape of standing dead trees. This creates particularly dangerous conditions for firefighters because these old beetle-killed trees are prone to falling suddenly, without warning.
Public and firefighter safety are always our first priorities in responding to wildfires. The day the Sugarloaf Fire started was the same day the Golf Course and Summer fires started near Grand Lake, resulting in evacuations. Some fire resources were shifted from the Sugarloaf Fire to those fires because they posed a more imminent threat to life and property.
The Forest Service’s strategy for suppressing the Sugarloaf Fire also prioritizes public and firefighter safety, taking into account the risks of working in this beetle-kill landscape. Working on steep and rugged slopes is always dangerous. Fighting a forest fire is always dangerous. Fighting a fire on steep and rugged terrain is especially dangerous — when a firefighter is unable to move out of the way of falling trees, it can be deadly. When firefighters spend more time trying to avoid getting hit by falling trees, they become ineffective at fighting the fire.
Fire personnel are actively suppressing this fire in areas where they can safely work. The fire is situated in a part of the Forest – and moving in a direction – that does not immediately threaten private or public infrastructure such as homes, cabins, businesses and campgrounds. This allows our fire managers to meet the fire on safer ground, away from burning or falling dead trees. Firefighters are also identifying roads and ridges that can be used as fire lines and reinforcing those lines to ensure they can successfully hold the fire if it should progress toward them.
There is infrastructure nearby, including an important mine, a major powerline, ranches and campgrounds, and firefighters are working to mitigate any future threat the fire may pose to these places. This include identifying structures where they can take immediate protective action should the fire become a threat. If it becomes necessary, engines and crews will be placed to protect structures, sprinkler systems will be installed and brush removed. This is referred to as “point protection” and it is expected to be very effective if it becomes necessary to deploy.
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Wildfires are weather dependent. Weather conditions control the intensity, rate and direction of spread. Fire personnel will continue to plan and prepare for changing conditions, looking for opportunities to take a more direct approach when critical values are threatened, the risks to firefighters is more acceptable, and the probability of success is higher.
We are grateful for the community’s understanding, patience and support as we employ these tactics to keep our firefighters and public safe.
Terry Baker is the deputy forest supervisor for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland.
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