|In the Line of Fire, Part One|
|Bill Hudson | 5/31/12|
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|"The Little Sand Fire, which was started by lightning on Sunday, May 13, is now estimated at 77 acres in size... The naturally ignited wildfire is currently being managed for its natural resource benefits in a remote, defined area."|
— Official U.S. Forest Service press release, Wednesday, May 23
Once again, the little town of Pagosa Springs awoke to the smell of smoke. Today, Thursday, May 31 — eighteen days after the first reports of a wildfire in the rugged hills above the Little Sand Creek, about 14 air miles from downtown Pagosa Springs — the fire continues to burn, and has grown in size to more than 3,700 acres. Smoke and ash continue to fill the air just west of the Piedra River bridge, maybe two miles from some of my friends' homes at the north end of Piedra Road up in Hinsdale County.
The fire is currently about eight miles from our little suburban community at Hatcher Lake.
Although the official report from May 23 noted that this "naturally ignited wildfire” was being managed “for its natural resource benefits in a remote, defined area," we learned yesterday afternoon — at a Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team presentation at Pagosa Springs High School — that it’s not so much a fire that is "being managed" but rather, the nearby population of humans that is "being managed."
Official photo of the Little Sand Fire, sent out by the Forest Service on May 23, when the fire was about 77 acres in size.
The U.S. Forest Service oversees the San Juan National Forest on southwestern Colorado — 1.8 million acres of spruce, fir, aspen, oak brush, grass, wildflowers, deer, elk, mountain lion, bear, blue jays, crows, mice — an amazingly complex ecological mix that most of us think of, rather simply, as “scenery.” The federally-managed forest is broken up into three districts: The Pagosa Ranger District, headed by District Ranger Kevin Khung; the Delores Ranger District, headed by District Ranger Derek Padilla; and the Columbine Ranger District, headed by District Ranger Matt Janowiak.
Incident Commander Todd Pechota fields questions from an audience of about 75 people during yesterday's community meeting at Pagosa Springs High School.
Kevin Khung was one of the presenters at yesterday’s Little Sand Fire Community Meeting in the High School Commons, and the person tasked with answering the question on the minds of so many Pagosans this month: why was the Little Sand Fire allowed to burn, when it was first discovered back on May 13? Why did the Forest Service take a chance, and potentially put the homes of local residents at risk? Why didn’t a firefighting team address the fire immediately?
Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung, in 2006, discussing an historically significant aspen tree carving with Colorado rancher David Sanchez in 2006.
I’d been posed those very questions just a few hours earlier in the day, by a local Pagosa resident who once helped fight the devastating Missionary Ridge fire near Durango in 2002.
“One man made the decision, to allow this fire to burn,” the resident told me, with the anger clearly evident in his voice. “I want to know how the Forest Service can allow one man to make a decision like this. They should have fought this fire starting from Day One — but they let it burn, knowing that we had dry, windy conditions in the weather forecast. Now we have — how many people fighting the fire? 200? How many millions of dollars will it end up costing the taxpayers?”
“You need to write about this,” he told me in a forceful tone. “It’s not right.”
According to the information given to us at the community meeting yesterday, there are about 243 people currently involved in “managing” the Little Sand Fire. And according to Todd Pechota, Incident Commander for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, the fire is “4 percent contained.”
Another windstorm like the ones we had over the weekend, and we could have a real problem.
So how was the decision made, to allow the Little Sand Fire to burn?
District Ranger Kevin Khung gave us his key reason at the meeting yesterday: he determined that fighting the fire would be too dangerous to the firefighters. I wondered if he wanted to give us more reasons; I wondered if he wanted to talk about the reason clearly stated in the official press release from May 23:
"The naturally ignited wildfire is currently being managed for its natural resource benefits in a remote, defined area."
Based on the very little knowledge I have of the San Juan National Forest and its current conditions, I understand that wildfire is a critical part of forest health — that in fact, a forest must experience periodic fires in order to maintain a balanced ecology. Or at least, that's the current scientific thinking, after 100 years of federal policies that have suppressed wildfires in our national forests.
But Kevin Khung did not mention that reason, at yesterday's meeting. He gave a more simple reason: fighting the fire was too dangerous. The terrain was simply too rugged, and the location was simply too remote, for safety.
It’s hard to argue with a decision to try and protect human lives.
We have an interesting and complex ecological mix in the San Juan Forest. And we have an interesting and complex economic and social mix in Archuleta and Hinsdale counties. No one doubts that the current situation with the Little Sand Fire is dealing economic consequences to Pagosa’s fragile tourism-based economy; some of our campgrounds are closed, the air is smoky, and people are feeling anxious. Not good conditions for tourism.
And everyone knows that our federal and local governments are accruing overtime pay to emergency management agencies, and to the 243 people now working to “manage” a fire that, after considerable effort, is only 4 percent contained.
Here is a photo of the San Juan National Forest, borrowed from the U.S. Forest Service website.
Speaking purely for myself, I would not want to be running up this mountainside, carrying a backpack and firefighting equipment, if a sudden windstorm picked up and started driving a wildfire uphill in my direction.
U.S. Forest Service photo, San Juan National Forest.
Economic damage is a terrible thing. The loss of someone’s home or ranch is a terrible blow. How terrible are these things, though, compared to the loss of one person's life?
“I have 243 husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews, working this fire,” Incident Commander Todd Pechota told us yesterday. “Their lives are my first concern.”
Read Part Two...
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