Contrary to some outcry, agencies’ fire mitigation practices save homes

An aerial photo taken on June 29 by Nick Howell illustrating the importance of “defensible space” when living in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface. Howell said vegetation treatments conducted by BLM and Forestry, Fire and State Lands made a big difference in the overall outcome of limiting this fire’s path of travel. Defensible space on private property and vegetation treatments on State and BLM land were a great combination here. June 29, 2012 | Photo by Nick Howell, Utah Bureau of Land Management.

SOUTHERN UTAH – The New Harmony Fire sparked to life on June 27 and proceeded to torch over 1,800 acres and destroy several structures and outbuildings. However, the nearby Bumblebee Ridge subdivision to the north, while in the immediate path of the fire, survived the fire thanks to fire mitigation practices.

More recently, on Aug. 7, the effectiveness of vegetation treatments were tested when lightning struck near Central, starting the Atchinson Fire. Thanks to the treatment, firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to the nearby community.

The New Harmony Fire

Primarily, the subdivision was saved through the practice of hazard fuels reduction. That is, the clearing out of particular sections of land between wilderness and developed areas. The Bureau of Land Management implemented the practice in 2010 in New Harmony, after suppressing many large fires near the community in years past.

Nick Howell, a fire mitigation specialist with the BLM, said up to 13,000 acres of wilderness in Southern Utah are cleared each year in relation to fuel reduction.

Aside from New Harmony, Howell said, the most significant treatments for hazardous fuels reduction included the areas around Dammeron Valley, Central, Enterprise and portions along state Route 18. These treatments tend to be done in areas that consist of Wildland-Urban Interfaces, places where unoccupied and undeveloped land transitions into human development.

In addition to providing a level of fire protection, Howell added that the reduction treatments also provided “wildlife habitat improvement.” Part of their intended purpose is to “restore rangeland with productive wildlife.”

Before, naturally occurring wildfires took care of excess fuels and, in a sense, wildlife habitat management. Due to many years of human-based fire suppression though, Howell said some disservice had been done to the forests by not allowing them to burn naturally.

Still, with human development continuing to push into wilderness areas where wildfires can occur, the BLM and associated agencies do what they can to mitigate fire threats, as had been done around the Bumblebee Ridge subdivision.

Although the Bumblebee Ridge fuels reduction treatment was designed to be impacted from the west, it intercepted the fire from the south, still making a significant difference for community fire protection. Once the fire hit the treatment area, fire intensity was significantly reduced, providing firefighters a safe location to work while attempting to protect homes in the fire’s direct path.

The treatment narrowed the fire’s width, preventing fire growth from expanding outward and into homes and structures located to the north and west of the primary subdivision. The treatment reduced the fire’s intensity to homes that were directly ahead of a fast moving flame front.

A combination of hazardous fuels reduction work conducted by BLM, defensible space and mechanical work on private land, and aggressive firefighting efforts all contributed to preventing many homes from being lost on June 27, 2012.

On occasion, when the BLM announces plans to clear out certain areas of wilderness for fire prevention purposes, a voice of opposition to the procedure is raised. Howell said this tended to come from people who were unfamiliar with the benefit of creating fuel breaks, or simply didn’t want the scenery they were accustomed to altered.

“They moved there for the (scenery,)” he said. “We like to have trees, but we need to have fire protection too.”

The Atchinson Fire

The lightning-caused Atchinson Fire started on Aug. 7 in a previous chaining* located in the Pine Valley Ranger District, east of the community of Central in Washington County, Utah. This Forest Service chaining, like various vegetation treatments mechanically conducted by the BLM, was designed to provide wildfire protection for communities at risk from wildland fire.

When the blaze started, firefighters were quickly able to stop the fire from spreading into the community of Central, minimizing natural resource damage on many fronts. The fire’s spread was halted at 51 acres the following day, containing the fire to a much smaller size than if the treatment hadn’t been completed.

These treatments also enable sites to provide productive natural resource management benefits for wildlife, water quality and quantity, as well as soil stabilization and watershed restoration.

*A “chaining” is an area of dense trees that is seeded to restore understory vegetation by dragging a chain in between two bulldozers over trees. These treatments restore what once was historically a favorable sagebrush and grass site after years of pinyon and juniper encroachment.

The charred area is what remains of the Atchinson Fire, Aug. 8, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Mike Melton, Atchinson Fire Air Attack, Bureau of Land Management

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright 2012 St. George News.


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1 Comment

  • Murat August 9, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Thanks to the BLM and the firefighters for all their hard work and for keeping the community safe!

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