Controlled Burns Alway Run Risk of Catastrophe

Controlled Burns Alway Run Risk of Catastrophe

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John Daley ReportingFederal and state fire officials say controlled or prescribed burns are one of the most effective tools they have to avoid larger, catastrophic fires. But their success inherently depends on factors that are often beyond their control.

The goal of these burns is to help clear away some of the overgrown and very dry brush and trees that we have all over the state. Fire officials carefully time these burns to coincide with periods when they believe the risk will be the lowest. Trouble can come when something changes, like the wind.

When it comes to preventing blazes in our wild lands, the conventional wisdom is that the best defense is a good offense. The strategy: to fight fire with fire in the form of a controlled burn. The danger: that the fire, like the one at Cascade Springs, won't behave and instead burns out of control.

Yesterday afternoon everything was in place including hand crews and a chopper ready with a bucket. The weather was favorable, and then, unexpectedly, it wasn't.

Loyal Clark, U.S. Forest Service: "And then we had a sudden change in wind speed and direction. The winds picked up from a five to six mile per hour wind during the prescription window to twenty five miles an hour."

Plans for this burn were three years in the making with a team of people conducting a complex study of the health of the forest, which--thanks to fire suppression--had not burned in this area for 50 years.

James Thomas, Uintah National Forest: "So in all these areas we have this major buildup of fuel. In this case right here we have a lot of dead oak buildup. And so one of the main reasons we are prescribed burning in the area is to reduce the fuel hazard that would start a major wildfire that would burn out of control toward communities."

The drought has created high fire danger. The dry fuel and high winds caused the blaze to move roughly 70 feet a minute, and burning grasses sent flames shooting 80 feet in the air.

Forest Service officials say they'll go back and carefully examine how this fire got out of control--though they thought they'd done everything right.

Pete Karp, Uinta National Forest: "It's a very involved, very complex process. Done by a team of very knowledgeable and experienced people throughout our organization. But it's not an exact science either."

Whenever a controlled burn like this gets out of control it inspires a new round of debate about fire, fire suppression and fire management. But without a better tool to prevent fires no doubt we will continue to see controlled burns and occasionally like this we'll see one get out of control.

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