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A prescribed fire burns at the Ben Delatour Boy Scout Ranch on October 15, 2019. The controlled burn would later become a wildfire. Photo by Jay Bouchard

We Went to Witness a Prescribed Burn—And It Became a Wildfire

A prescribed fire on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch jumped its boundary on Wednesday, prompting evacuations in a nearby neighborhood. Though the Elk fire is small, it's an unfortunate turn of events for proponents of controlled burning.

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It’s a rare occurrence when forest managers are able to torch land and conduct a controlled burn. It’s even more rare for a controlled burn to grow out of control and become a wildfire—but both of those things happened this week on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch about 25 miles northwest of Fort Collins.

I was embedded with interagency firefighters—led by fire managers at the Nature Conservancy—when they took their torches to the ground on Tuesday morning.  It was a plan several years in the making: The 505 acres they intended to burn on the ranch hadn’t seen fire for nearly 150 years and the landscape desperately needed burning to mitigate the threat of a massive wildfire in the future.

A firefighter monitors weather conditions at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch on October 15, 2019. Photo by Jay Bouchard

Nearly 60 firefighters and forest managers were on site Tuesday when the burning began. The weather was good—in the 50s with slight wind. The mood was light; the burn bosses were confident but also operated with an appropriate sense of nervousness and caution. And after the first grasses were lit, everything seemed to go according to plan throughout the afternoon. Two crews worked in different stages—one moving north-to-south and burning along a recently bulldozed road, the other working east-to-west, burning along county road 68C. The fire moved through the brush as expected—a couple trees were torched completely, but nothing out of the ordinary happened on Tuesday as the first hundred acres burned.

What happened after that is somewhat unclear, as information is still emerging and the crews who lit the fire are now working to contain it. According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s office, the controlled burn escaped its designated boundary on Wednesday and was classified as a wildfire (the Elk fire) as it began burning on an additional 150 acres less than a mile from the Glacier View Meadows subdivision. An additional 80 firefighters were called in to assist with the fire, several planes and a helicopter dropped water and retardant, and mandatory evacuations were ordered for the residents in the nearby neighborhood (they’ve since been called off).

Though at 150 acres this fire is relatively small and already 80 percent contained, it is surely an unfortunate turn of events for prescribed fire proponents in Colorado. The state has a serious deficit of prescribed burning, and forest managers have been trying to gain public trust over the past several years in order to use more “good” fire on public and private land. Property owners are often nervous about land being intentionally set ablaze and grow frustrated when firefighters take a hands-off approach to containment—as we’re seeing right now on the Decker fire south of Salida. Plus, the additional resources that it will take to put the Elk fire fire out—including the cost of aircraft and additional crews—were not anticipated when it was originally budgeted.

It’s hard to know precisely how often prescribed fires jump their boundaries, but Mark Finney, a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service and one of the most respected fire scientists in the country, told me last year, “It’s so rare I’m not sure you could find reliable statistics.”

Still, Colorado has a painful history with what is an otherwise rare event. In 2012, the Lower North Fork fire south of Conifer—which was started as a prescribed burn—grew out of control, killing three people and destroying 27 homes in the process. The state had to pay nearly $20 million in settlements and ultimately altered its approach to broadcast burning.

As more people in Colorado move into the Wildland-Urban Interface—where development and wildland vegetation coexist—the ability to conduct prescribed burning is growing more difficult. There are fewer swaths of land where homes won’t be threatened, and making a plan for such an event takes years. Compounding that challenge is weather: If the winds kick up or we see prolonged dry weather, burning plans can be tabled.

And that’s why the situation northwest of Fort Collins is so frustrating: After years of meticulous planning, even if no homes are destroyed and no lives are placed in imminent danger, the public perception around prescribed burning will likely only sour.

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