Tensions flare at fire meeting

Opposing viewpoints expressed over fire strategies at Grand Encampment Opera House

 


A mix of anger, gratitude, resignation and curiosity was aswirl in the air of the Grand Encampment Opera House Sept. 1. About 75 people packed into the historic building for an informational presentation on the Beaver Creek and Broadway Fires burning south of Encampment, and tension was rife among some attendees.

Fire-fighting officials came out in force for the meeting. The four main presenters of the evening were Operations Section Chief John Giller, Brush Creek District Ranger Melanie Fullman, Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland Forest Supervisor Dennis Jaeger, and Public Information Officer (PIO) Kris Eriksen. Supporting these four were a cast of about a half dozen other fire-camp representatives, including Incident Commander Trainee Troy Hagan and several PIOs who set up cameras to film the event.

Hagan kicked things off with a fifteen minute overview to catch up the crowd on the then 75-day old Beaver Creek Fire 24 miles north of Walden, Colo. and the then 19-day old Broadway Fire 11 miles south of Encampment. Hagan explained that Beaver Creek had burned about 37,000 acres, while the Broadway incident had set ablaze over 600 acres.


“(Broadway) is the most active (fire) and the one we’re most concerned about,” Giller chimed in. A few days earlier, high wind and dry conditions allowed Broadway to roughly double in size.

At the Sept. 1 meeting, fire officials announced additional closures of lands east of the Encampment River Wilderness and west of the “Rim Road” or Forest Service Road 496. Though a few spot fires had ignited west of the Rim Road, the fire team was using feller bunchers and conducting burn-outs along the route in efforts to establish it as a fire line preventing the westward expansion of the blaze, Fullman said.

She explained that the roughly one-mile wide newly-closed area was already largely inaccessible due to pre-existing road closures, and that a logging operation in the area had voluntarily pulled out. “We didn’t even have to ask them to leave–they were enthusiastic about leaving,” Fullman said with a chuckle.

In a question and answer session that took up about 50 minutes of the 70 minute-long presentation, it became clear that several in attendance did not share Fullman’s amusement. Citing his own past wildfire fighting experience, Wyoming District 47 State Representative Jerry Paxton lead off the Q and A with a blistering critique of suppression strategy.

“It would be a lot easier to put (Broadway) out if we got really aggressive with it right off the bat instead of just taking a passive approach,” Paxton said.

The State Representative said resident patience had been over-taxed, over the course of a smoky summer and firefighters should be dispatched with more boldness. In his time fighting fires, Paxton said, “I guarantee you it got to be hazardous once in a while, but we got the fires put out a lot quicker than this.”

The four main presenters took turns responding to Paxton’s criticism, largely by laying out the serious consequences that could result from imprudent deployment. “The Forest Service killed 19 firefighters last year,” Jaeger said.

Giller said, “I was done a long time ago with putting firefighters in bad places for no reason.” Fullman pitched in too, asking, “What are you going to say to a parent (of a firefighter)– ‘your son died for dead trees?’”

Despite saying they had done their best to suppress the blaze early on, it was evident that several of the responders saw the flames as providing some benefit to the largely beetle-killed area. The fire, Fullman and Hagan noted, was burning in a “mosaic” pattern that would allow for fast regeneration of the forest. “It’s not 37,000 acres of black trees. Actually, within that area there’s probably 20 or 30 percent that didn’t even burn at all,” Giller agreed.

The Operations Section Chief went even farther, saying that in his personal view “When I see this 37,000 acre footprint, that’s 37,000 acres I don’t have to put a firefighter in for at least 10 to 15 years.” He called burning out the snags, or standing dead trees, in the area, “how God would have taken care of (the beetle kill) if we weren’t here.”

These statements, meant to assuage resident concerns, may have contributed to a perception that officials had let the blaze go unchecked early on as part of a resource management strategy. Referring to a proposed fireline, one man asked, skeptically, “Are you really going to try and stop (the fire) when it gets over there?”

“The reason (Broadway) wasn’t (put-out earlier) is it’s beetle-killed timber and they wanted it to burn—but then it got out of hand and now look what we’ve got,” Paxton asserted after the meeting. Officials repeatedly denied this claim and said helicopters had targeted Broadway with water-drops from day one, but tough, inaccessible terrain had hindered ground-based operations.

Other questioners focused on past prevention efforts. Several attendees asked why loggers hadn’t cleared more of the dead wood in prior years. Fullman said lumber prices hadn’t fully recovered since the 2008 housing bubble, making timber sales tough. She noted that the sawmill in Saratoga was already sitting on a four-year supply of lumber, and that several of the areas in flames had already been contracted out and were awaiting harvest.

“We’re going to continue to put up timber sales, we’re going to continue to do logging. That’s part of our mission. But we’re going to continue to have fires,” Fullman said.

It was the future that concerned other residents. Citing rumors he’d heard that small dirt roads were being transformed into “interstate highways,” one man asked what the plans for the fire aftermath were. Giller told him fire suppression repair efforts such as regrading roads damaged by heavy equipment would continue into the fall. Long-term environmental rehab like seeding burnt areas and erosion prevention efforts would go on for up to three years, he said.

When asked by a skeptical-sounding rancher whether next year’s grazing rights would be impacted, Fullman said unequivocally, “I haven’t seen anything on this district that would warrant any change in the grazing operations. Nothing.” Fullman likewise reassured another resident she hadn’t seen any indications that water quality had been impacted.

Whatever action is or is not taken, the fire will almost certainly be resolved in the next 60 days. Giller said September is when the large majority of “season-ending events,” like a heavy snowfall occur, and this will likely bring an end to the embers. Fullman called the summer’s fire suppression efforts, safe, cheap and effective, and added “I think ecologically, at the end of the day, at the end of this fire, we’re probably going to say this was beneficial.”

Those like Paxton weren’t so sure. “I’m not happy and I’m not satisfied with the answers. I think there’s going to be some negative implications for this community–that’s why I want a meeting (with fire responders) a year from now,” he said after the meeting.

Perhaps the more pressing question is what lies ahead. “This is the beginning, and I think we’re going to see more of this,” one woman stated. “(Beetle-kill) is all around me, and like I said, I live in Ryan Park. (Fire) is not a matter of if, it’s when,” she concluded.

 

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