Safe Burning in the Wildland Urban Interface

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Controlled Pile-burning Near a National Forest

Burn Pile in WUI, Kaibab National Forest, US. USFS photo

The policy of suppressing wildfire, especially on American Western public lands like our national forests and parks, has had a negative effect on new developments near their boundaries. The new businesses and residents enjoying the closeness to wilderness are increasing the size of what is called the  Wildland Urban Interface or WUI.

The last century's "no fire policy" practiced on much of our federal lands has resulted in increased fuel loadings that are dramatically increasing the possibility of devastating wildfires. Climate change has not made things easier. The use of prescribed fire and mechanical treatments to decrease hazardous fuels and risks of catastrophic wildfire is now a priority for federal and state forest land managers and foresters.

21st-century fire managers are now carefully developing prescribed fire burn plans to reduce the chances of a dangerous and damaging wildfire incident near WUIs. Pile burns are a major practice that can improve the odds against the loss of property and life near wildland areas.

The plan is only implemented when environmental conditions are ideal to assure firefighter and property owner safety and to achieve the desired objectives. These objectives are dedicated toward the reducing accumulations of hazard fuels, maintaining the natural role of fire in a fire-adapted ecosystem, protecting sensitive cultural and natural resources, and decreasing risks to life and property.

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Planning a Pile Burn for Fuel Reduction

Burn Pile Prep, Kaibab NF. Steve Nix

Using the technique of burning piles of debris is labor intensive, expensive and mainly used in sensitive areas. Encroaching residential and commercial developments, forest park systems and sensitive cultural and archaeological sites are located near major harvest debris fields resulting from forest logging and thinning.

Crews with chainsaws will mark areas where treatment is deemed necessary. In some cases, they may actually fell a portion of small thick tree stands that could be tender for a fast-moving wildfire. The debris is piled in separated mounds in low litter areas and burned under exacting conditions.

Every prescribed plan is uniquely developed for each treatment and contains a set of parameters that define the desired weather and fuel conditions under which a prescribed fire may be initiated. These conditions are continuously monitored by the fire manager throughout the treatment process. These prescribed treatments are scheduled, property owners and the public is informed and will only be implemented after fire managers have evaluated the current weather conditions and determined that conditions are favorable for that prescribed burn.

Before any prescribed fire, treatment is implemented after notification will be provided through multiple channels to include email news releases, Twitter and the forest website. the status of any initiated prescribed fire can be tracked on InciWeb.

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Fire Planning in the Kaibab National Forest Northern District

Burn Piles Near Occupied Firetower. Steve Nix

These photos were taken on my visit to the Kaibab Plateau and the gateway to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. You will see during the visit, major losses of timber and property over decades and you will pass through the devastation along the 90-mile plateau drive to the Grand Canyon National Park.

The northern district of the Kaibab National Forest covers most of the Kaibab Plateau. In 2006, rangers fighting a lightning-ignited fire by managing it much like a prescribed burn lost control. The fire ultimately burned about 40,000 acres or about 62 square miles of forest. It looks and feels like a major forest tragedy as you drive through.

The fire objective of the North Kaibab Ranger District now is to prescribe treatments to increase the defensible space for the WUI  within the North Kaibab Ranger District developed areas, Secondary objectives include increasing landscape resilience to wildfire, reducing harmful insects and disease and returning fire in this forest to a fire-adapted ecosystem,

All prescribed burning on the Kaibab National Forest is subject to approval by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and on appropriate weather conditions.

Before prescribed fire treatment is implemented, fire managers make every effort for notification possible using multiple channels to include email news releases, Twitter and the forest management team's website. Often, the status of most initiated prescribed fires near the WUI can be tracked on the ranger district's website.