ELKO – With the fire season rapidly approaching, local U.S. Forest Service representatives have opened the dialogue on when to allow fires to burn for the benefit of the resources.
The agency developed a map that designates land in the National Forest as either red or green zones.
Troy Phelps, Forest Service district fire management officer who was been introducing county leaders to the maps, said if a fire ignites in any of the green areas, fire officials will determine whether it could help the health of the forest.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re going to suppress them,” he said.
In the rare cases when fire is appropriate, the Forest Service will make that determination by considering the time of year, precipitation and available resources, among other factors.
If a fire ignites in an area that’s green on the map, fire managers will begin the discussion whether to let it burn or extinguish the flames.
Aside from rejuvenating parts of the forest, a controlled fire can serve an ancillary purpose, Phelps said: invaluable field experience.
“It’s a huge training opportunity,” he said.
Not only would that experience be available to federal firefighters, Phelps said, but county fire officials as well.
Gary Zunino, administrator of the Elko County Fire Protection District, expected county participation would be limited because of the remoteness of many forest areas.
“We wouldn’t be against it if the opportunity presented itself,” he added.
Zunino would be against allowing the forest to burn, however, if it isn’t done responsibly.
Several years ago, Zunino, then employed at the Fire Science Academy, criticized federal agencies after they lost control of a damaging fire.
Phelps said decades ago the Forest Service began to realize that it was attacking fire so proficiently that it had eliminated what was once a natural piece of the ecosystem, causing unintended problems.
But a let-burn policy wasn’t the solution, so the agency continued to adapt.
“That same policy has evolved four or five iterations,” he said.
The latest – known as “fire for resource benefit” – allows firefighters to be more strategic, according to Phelps.
Zunino said he appreciated the Forest Service’s cooperative approach.
“We’ll work with them the best we can,” he said.
Phelps plans to present to the Elko County Commission today. The meeting begins 1:30 p.m. at the Nannini Administration Building.