The lightning caused O’Harrel fire on Glass Mountain east of Crowley has been burning about two weeks now. The fire is being managed as what Forest Service officials call a fire use fire, meaning that firefighters let the fire take its natural course and burn itself out.
At times the smoke from the O’Harrel fire could be seen high over the Crowley area leading one to believe that a major inferno burned through the pinyons, Jeffrey pines and aspen of O’Harrel canyon.
Andrew Pattison with the Forest Service works these natural burns all summer long, hiking into the backcountry to monitor and contain naturally occurring fires that don’t threaten much.
Walking around the still smoldering remains of the O’Harrel fire, fresh fire scars blacken a few feet up the tree trunks, sagebrush and mahogany has burned, but some remains. Meadows, where the water table is high were untouched by the fire. Pattison says that with a low intensity fire like this one, most of the trees will survive.
The goal of fire use is to reintroduce a low intensity natural fire to jump start the natural fire regime that existed for hundreds of years before we were here, he says. In plain terms this means fire naturally gets rid of fuels that can lead to major wildland fires.
Forest official only let certain fires burn. Often a fire use fire is high in the back-country where rock surrounds pockets of trees giving the fire natural containment. How close a fire is to homes and structures is another factor. Pattison says that the time of year matters as well.
With more moisture in the air and lower temperatures in the fall, the fire stayed at a low intensity. If the fire started in July or August with a good wind, Pattison says that the picture would have been very different. Many of the big trees would be gone, replaced by a moonscape of ash pits and skeletons of trees, he said.
With at most ten people working this fire and no air support Pattison reports that costs shake out to about $10 an acre. Prescribed burns, where crews often cut and pile limbs or surround the fire cost between $35 and $100 per acre of treatment, he said. Large wildland fires, with air tankers and structures to protect can cost thousands of dollars per acre to control.
A fire use fire, like this O’Harrel Fire, can be just what the doctor ordered for certain types of forest. Trees that have fallen over the years have burned down to white strips of ash. Dead snags have burnt through at the bottom and will soon become fallen logs. Nutrients from the burned plants and pine needles will fuel a new crop of growth after the snow melts.