Wednesday, July 27, 2016

To Manage or Suppress - The McClure Fire Example

Sandy Hurlocker, Española District Ranger
Santa Fe National Forest 
More and more, the conversation is moving around how fire management agencies are "managing" fires versus suppressing them, when it's the right decision to make for the landscape and natural resources, the communities, and for public and firefighter safety.  This is a substantial paradigm shift in fire operation strategy that the Cohesive Strategy supports.  But, that doesn't mean every fire is an opportunity for management over suppression. Making these risk-based decisions means considering many variables.

The McClure Fire came to life on June 23rd in a wilderness area near Santa Fe, New Mexico as a result of lightning.  Fire managers quickly decided on a full-suppression effort that included 80 firefighters, several water drops and cost $300,000.  The fire was kept small, to about 7.5 acres, but has started an important conversation in the community.   

Sandy Hurlocker is the Española District Ranger on the Santa Fe National Forest and adds his perspective in a recent op-ed piece in the Santa Fe New Mexican. 

The choice to suppress, rather than manage this fire for resource benefit, seemed obvious to Hurlocker with almost half of the city's water supply at risk. That said, several risk-based questions had to be answered - why risk injury to firefighters on steep ground with limited access? Why respond aggressively to fire in a wilderness area where natural processes like fire are better left alone?  And why respond to a lightning caused fire that was in a place approved for prescribed fire?

The short answer, Hurlocker explains, is timing and risk.  A windy, dry forecast meant the possibility of a large fire, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres. That would mean highway and park closures and of course a high-severity fire running unchecked in the watershed, threatening the city's water supply.  Even with a little rain in the forecast, it wouldn't  be enough given the heavy fuel loads and potential to run into September.  

Hurlocker further explains the Go-No-Go policy of prescribed fires. Even with careful preparation, planning and resources in place, managers still make the final call based on optimal conditions. The conditions on June 23rd were far from optimal and not a bet that local leadership was willing to make. 

What impresses me about this op-ed piece is Hurlocker's actions which mirror the local forest's determination to continue to educate their public about their landscape and the how's and why's behind the decisions they make. Not a new concept on the Santa Fe Forest, but one worth sharing in hopes that others will do the same.  

Read the full piece here

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