The Decker Fire blew up on the night of Oct. 2 as high winds kicked up, sending flames across the face of Methodist Mountain seen from Salida.
“Nobody expected the weather to do what it did that evening,” said Chris Naccarato, Mountain Zone fire management officer for the Salida Ranger District of the San Isabel and Pike National Forests.
Fire activity earlier in the day had triggered a new response to the fire, and a Type 1 incident management team was called in.
The fire caused evacuations and pre-evacuation orders to be issued by Chaffee County and Fremont County sheriff’s departments and sent residents to shelter in Salida and Cañon City.
Meanwhile, firefighters put precautionary measures in place to protect structures in the potential path of the fire, especially in Bear Gulch near Howard.
The fire and the response to it has been the subject of conjecture by the public, including letters to the editor asking why it was not put out sooner.
U.S. Forest Service officials said federal policy dictated the steps taken to combat the blaze and the plans developed over the course of the fire.
Management’s action points
The Decker fire was started Sept. 8 by a lightning strike in the Saguache Ranger District of the Rio Grande National Forest in Saguache County.
The Rio Grande rangers first analyzed the situation to determine their approach to the fire. Current federal policy dictates that a wildland fire, in an unpopulated area, especially with a natural ignition, be allowed to fulfill its natural role.
Naccarato said that with a wilderness fire, a planning area is first mapped out, and within that area management action points are determined – for example, a ridge line, drainage, trail or other factors such as days of weather.
When the fire reaches that management action point, it triggers an evaluation and type of action.
An early management point in the Decker fire was keeping the fire in the Rio Grande National Forest.
When the fire crossed into San Isabel National Forest, the situation was re-evaluated with the cooperation of the Salida Ranger District of the San Isabel and Pike National Forests, and a new map was developed with new management action points.
Those new management action points included Rainbow Trail, Columbine Gulch, the repeater sites on Methodist Mountain and the ridge line from Methodist Mountain to Poncha Mountain.
Each point had an assigned action. For example, fire reaching Columbine Gulch or Rainbow Trail would trigger full suppression.
By the time fire activity increased significantly the night of Oct. 2, spreading across the front of Methodist Mountain, fire activity had already triggered calling in a Type 1 incident management team, and the team was on its way to take over management of the fire.
Later on as the fire reached Rainbow Trail, the action plan called for full suppression, which was made easier by a shift in the fuel, better access for firefighters and a less steep incline.
While the current policy allows wildfires to burn, especially in an uninhabited area, the first priority is firefighter safety and public safety, followed by community infrastructure and structures protection.
The 2009 Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy states that every area with burnable vegetation must have a fire management plan that is based on the area’s land management plan.
That plan must provide for firefighter and public safety; include fire management strategies, tactics and alternatives; address values to be protected and public health issues; and be consistent with resource management objectives, activities of the area and environmental laws and regulations, the policy states.
The response to the Decker fire was dictated by Forest Service policy that has changed over the years, along with attitudes toward the natural role of fire on the landscape.
Spurred by the “Big Blow Up” of 1910, in which 5 million acres across Idaho, Montana and the eastern part of Washington burned in an inferno fanned by hurricane-force winds, the federal agencies that oversee wildland firefighting initially focused on prevention and suppression and were mainly concerned with watershed and timber protection.
Those policies remained in place for more than 60 years.
Toward the late 20th century, fire’s role as a natural process in the ecosystem was recognized and taken into account when developing strategies to incorporate wildland fires into land management plans.
The shift in the paradigm came to general public attention and under scrutiny with the first major test of the policy in the Yellowstone Fire of 1988, but it has remained in place.
Wildland urban interface
As human activity increasingly encroaches into wilderness areas, another factor taken into account in planning is the increase in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
“The focus is to prevent the movement of wildfires from the wildlands into the wildland-urban interface area, out of the WUI area into the wildlands, and improve the efficiency of wildfire suppression in WUI situations,” the federal policy states.
All of that requires planning and monitoring the situation.
Naccarato said wildland firefighters don’t like the term “letting the fire burn,” because work is ongoing while the fire takes its natural course in a wilderness area.
“We’re planning, timing, monitoring, measuring fire effect and planning for contingencies” during that time, Naccarato said.
In the case of the Decker Fire, teams assessed structures all the way to Poncha Springs during the course of a couple of weeks, he said.
The past and the future
Naccarato said an important point about the Decker Fire and other recent wildland fires in the area is that historically fires in this area tend to be high severity but low frequency.
He said the area had larger fires in the late 1800s, and that cycle seems to run from 150-350 years.
The large fires reset the forest following disturbances such as drought, insects and disease.
Naccarato said we are in that pattern now with recent drought and beetle activity.
“We are in the phase where we could have multiple large fires in the next 100 years,” he said.
In the past, high alpine stands have been cool and moist, but with recent disturbances the forest type is drier.
Fire is a natural process, Naccarato said.
“Decker was an inconvenience for folks around here, but it could have been a lot worse,” he said.
The Decker Fire burned almost 9,000 acres over the course of 50 days.
By contrast, the July 2016 Hayden Pass Fire burned more than 16,000 total acres in 10 days, with 7,000 acres of that burning in one day.