Fuels Treatments

Rocky has a large wildland-urban interface (WUI), meaning a substantial portion of the park’s border meets communities and infrastructure. Reducing risks for firefighters and the public is the main goal for fire managers. They reach this goal by conducting fuels treatments, including prescribed fires and mechanical treatments.

Disruptions of natural fire cycles and pine bark beetle infestations in some areas of the park have caused increased fuel build-up in some of Rocky's forests, meaning the density of vegetation and dead and downed trees is high. Increased fuels combined with certain weather conditions and terrain can result in wildland fires that are hot, long-lasting, and spread quickly.

 

Goals

  • Reduce the potential for loss of life of firefighters, employees, visitors, and neighbors due to wildland fire
  • Reduce the risk to park infrastructure, homes, communities, natural resources, cultural resources, and municipal watersheds
  • Utilize fuels reduction treatments to better restore and maintain natural fire regimes and fire-dependent ecosystems
 

Methods

 
firefighters conducting a prescribed burn
Prescribed fires were conducted near the Beaver Meadows Entrance in October, 2018.

NPS photo

Prescribed Fires

A prescribed fire – also called a “prescribed burn” or “controlled burn” – is the intentional ignition of fire by fire managers. Prescribed fires are an important tool used to reach certain management objectives. In Rocky, these planned burns are used to reduce the number of fuels in parts of the park close to infrastructure, areas with high visitation, and surrounding communities. Before starting a prescribed fire, managers carefully consider the safety of the public and fire staff, weather, and the probability of meeting the burn objectives.

Prescribed burns of surface fuels, called broadcast burns, may be used to reach several objectives. Roadside shrubs may be burned to decrease the flame height, making controlling fire from the road more effective. Reducing ladder fuels, such as low lying branches and shrubs growing beneath ponderosa pines, reduces the risk of treetops catching fire. Prescribed burning of dead and downed fuel can decrease the duration of wildfire due to fuel’s potential to smolder for extended periods.

 
slash piles burning on Deer Mountain
Slash piles were burned on Deer Mountain in January, 2017.

NPS photo

Mechanical Treatments

The ongoing mechanical treatments throughout the park focused near infrastructure reduce fuel loads in an attempt to slow the spread of wildfire and decrease its duration. For these treatments, slash piles are built from thinning of forest vegetation and hazard-tree mitigation, including beetle-killed trees. Piles are burned in winter when weather conditions are favorable. Over 3,000 slash piles were burned in the winter of 2018-2019.
 
To the best of their ability, fire managers attempt to mimic the effects of a natural fire during prescribed fires. Accomplishing this goal is difficult because fire managers use high amounts of caution to reduce the risk of an escaped prescribed fire. Additionally, fire managers must adhere to regulations regarding smoke impacts on human health and safety.

Fuels treatments are not always a guarantee that fires will stay within park boundaries. Rapid changes in weather conditions can cause a rapid change in fire behavior. Fire preparedness should be a top priority for all communities near fire-adapted ecosystems.

Last updated: September 14, 2019

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1000 US Hwy 36
Estes Park , CO 80517

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970 586-1206
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