RGNF: Rock Creek prescribed burn a success

Courtesy photos The Rock Creek Wildland Urban Interface project was designed to reduce fuel loading on the border between Rio Grande National Forest lands and adjacent private lands. By thinning the understory and reducing tree crown spacing, the area has less potential to support a large wildfire and provides better opportunities for a more aggressive attack on a fire, according to RGNF officials. The area was masticated in early 2020 and the slash piles were created by a contract thinning crew in the summer.

RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST — Winter in the San Luis Valley and across the Rio Grande National Forest provides opportune times for forest officials to complete prescribed burn projects when snow and conditions allow. The most recent project took place along the Rock Creek area near the archery shooting range and included the fire mitigation of roughly 500 acres.

Through this process, the area was treated for wildland fire mitigation that included mastication, hand trimming and a prescribed burn. Goals for the project were to improve big-game winter range areas, re-establish and promote new Aspen growth in overgrown or crowded stands, remove understory that can be a fire hazard and provide a change in fuel continuity between the national forest and private lands. 

“When we determine an area that needs mitigation like a prescribed burn, we have a long process that must take place before the project can even get off the ground. As with many things the forest service does, prescribed burns and mitigation projects require a NEPA process which helps determine that there will be no significate impact to the environment by our proposed actions. Usually, this process can be completed in a year’s time, but it can also vary,” said Rio Grande National Forest acting Fuel Planner Kent Smith.

Smith explained that after the NEPA process is completed, a team of forest officials works together to determine the need or purpose and to come up with the proposed action. Once this phase is complete the proposed plan is then reviewed by the forest supervisor. Once approved, the team waits for the weather and conditions to be just right. In the meantime, if the project is in what is called a wildland urban interface, as was the case with the Rock Creek project, private landowners and other organizations like the Bureau of Land Management are contacted.

“We started this project in 2019 but because of the COVID pandemic, it had to wait until this year. We did not have any other big challenges with this particular project, and I know that our communication with the public played a huge role in our success. There were days when the smoke was going to be worse than anticipated and we were given the go-ahead by property owners in the area to move forward with the project. In the end, we burned about 800 piles of slash which was the result of our mitigation process,” Smith said.

Josh Jordan, who was the burn boss for the Rock Creek project, also agreed that the relationship project managers created with the landowners and public in the area were the main reason the project was so successful.

“We follow our burn plan, and we lit a certain number of piles per day so that we could watch and mitigate the spread. It can be hard to have a prescribed burn take place near your home or property, and we like to make sure conditions are right before we proceed and to educate the public on our process to help alleviate those concerns. It is very important to us to be successful,” Jordan said.

Now that the Rock Creek project is in the books, the team will be moving to a new prescribed burn area near Crestone that will be along the Willow Creek Trailhead and another up North Carnero Creek near County Road 41G. For more information, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov.

Courtesy photos The Rock Creek Wildland Urban Interface project was designed to reduce fuel loading on the border between Rio Grande National Forest lands and adjacent private lands. By thinning the understory and reducing tree crown spacing, the area has less potential to support a large wildfire and provides better opportunities for a more aggressive attack on a fire, according to RGNF officials. The area was masticated in early 2020 and the slash piles were created by a contract thinning crew in the summer.

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