Prescribed Burns Give Firefighters Breathing Room

Jul 13, 2018

Operations section chief Randy McKenzie explains the firefighting strategy for the parts of the Lake Christine that are not yet contained.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

As the Lake Christine Fire continues to burn along the upper stretches of Missouri Heights, a handful of firefighters watched pink clouds of smoke billow on the hillside across from Spring Park Reservoir.


A homeowner in a pickup truck stopped when he saw the iconic yellow shirts and hardhats. He wanted to know what the firefighting strategy was. He was still worried about his home, especially when winds pick up at night.


Randy McKenzie is an operations section chief overseeing the Lake Christine Fire. He pointed out a critical tool the firefighters have been using: A thick stretch of dark green vegetation across the hillside below the smoke.


“All that was a controlled burn,” he explained.

The controlled burn happened in 2015. It was meant to improve wildlife habitat — but was also a game-changer in fighting the Lake Christine Fire.  

The hills where the crew was are steep, covered in thick oak brush. Matt Butler, a fire behavior analyst, explained that as oak ages, the leaves become more flammable, and dead, dry wood piles up underneath, so the Lake Christine Fire raced through the aging vegetation on July 4 and 5. It was an intense, running crown fire with flames as high as 40-feet.

“When it hit the oak and the old prescribed burn, it dropped to the ground and it basically just underburned the oak with much lower intensities," Butler said.

The northwest edge of the Lake Christine Fire burns near the Spring Park Reservoir.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

By Thursday, those flames were down to less than a foot. The fire continued to grow, but it was at a much slower pace, thanks to that prescribed burn from a few years ago that cleared out a lot of the fuel.  


“It made a huge difference and I think our whole tactics and whole strategy with this northwest corner would be much different had this prescribed burn not happened,” Butler said.

The 2015 burn — and another nearby from 2007 — bought firefighters some time. Now, it’s helping protect their safety. McKenzie explained that this terrain is too treacherous for ground crews. It’s steep, for one.

“And that oak brush is hard to walk through. You had to crawl through it," McKenzie said. "For firefighters to fighting fire with that kind of hazard and not be able to see the fire near them, that’s when we pull back and come to a safer zone.”

The safer zone is below the prescribed burn; even in high winds, the fire hasn’t taken hold in that greener vegetation. This has allowed crews to work below to construct control lines that will direct the fire away from homes.


Leland Dodds, a firefighter with Pacific Oasis out of Oregon, works on the Lake Christine Fire.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

"Our goal is to make a black line parallel to the forward head of the fire, or even just a little bit ahead of the fire's perimeter," he said.

It’s like a linebacker running at an angle to take out a wide receiver. When they intersect, the wildfire runs out of room to spread toward homes, because once the landscape is black, it won’t re-burn.

McKenzie and Butler said the Lake Christine Fire is likely to keep burning for weeks, but they are hopeful this strategy means it will be in a direction that doesn’t threaten lives or homes.