Keep on burning

Doug Crowl

— Despite the fact that I think the Routt Divide Blowdown is an awesome spectacle of nature that everyone should see, I hope the Mad Creek fire burns as many patches of the downed trees as it possibly can before there are dry, standing beetle kill trees all over the forest.

For a month, the Mad Creek fire has gone back and forth from smoldering hot spots to a blazing fire in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, just north of Steamboat Springs. It is not threatening private land and is mainly staying in blowdown patches of the forest. Most of the 1,300 acres burned has been blowdown.

Fire officials say the high fuel load of the blowdown retains heat very well, and combined with the rugged terrain in the wilderness, it is nearly impossible for fire crews to safely get to the fire and put it out completely. Plus, because the blowdown is so thick 10 feet high in some sections dousing the fire from a helicopter doesn’t work because the water won’t penetrate the toppled timber.

The fire probably won’t be completely out until a major weather event happens, which might not be until the winter. But that might not even do the trick.

Mike Rieser, fire management officer for the Craig-Routt Fire Management Unit, has said it isn’t unheard of for a fire in heavy fuels to stay hot through the winter and then stoke up after the thaw.

So why is that not a bad thing?

Among people in the U.S. Forest Service, the Routt National Forest is referred to as an asbestos forest. That doesn’t mean hikers will be getting cancer; it means the forest doesn’t burn much. The Forest Service has determined the last big burn in the Routt National Forest happened in the 1880s. Since then, a large amount of spruce and fir trees have grow in the forest, which are more resistant to fire than other trees.

But there are about 4 million dead, dry and blown-over trees mainly spruce and fir that have turned the asbestos forest into a matchbook forest. And by God’s good will, it’s going to burn sooner or later.

I say burn now, because I’m thinking about the bark beetle. In five years, we will see thousands of standing, dead spruce and pine trees in the forest. They won’t be in nice little patches like the blowdown, either. The dead trees will extend throughout the forest and into urban areas.

The spruce beetle’s population exploded in the blowdown, so mature spruce trees around the patches will link other dead trees through the forest. I’d feel a lot better about that if most of the blowdown is burned by that time. If not, it could be a source of a fire that actually threatens private property, burning out of the patches and toward the city.

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