Firefighters from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office let me tag along on an April 19 prescribed burn. Lit for the purpose of clearing a conveyance ditch, the burn countered the idea that every prescribed burn is a high-risk, open landscape affair. Sometimes, fire is just the simplest way to accomplish a goal.

East of Niwot, near Oxford and 115th, a cement-lined ditch abuts county-leased farmland. Right now, the ditch is empty — of water. Tumbleweeds and leaves and timber waste have taken over, windblown into the lowest point on a flat landscape. If not cleared, when water starts running in a few weeks, the plant matter will clog the system and keep water from getting where it needs to go.

I’ve written about the importance of prescribed fire from a forest health perspective and as a fire mitigation tool. Fire, in semi-arid landscapes like Boulder’s, acts as a primary decomposer, breaking down dead and dying plant matter to return nutrients to the soil. It also thins forests, reducing the risk of catastrophic fires and fighting the invasion of unwelcome species.

At this conveyance ditch, though, it didn’t seem like either of these goals was being fulfilled. I asked Dave Buchanan, a fire operations specialist with the sheriff’s office and the “fire boss” for the burn, why the tumbleweed and leaves couldn’t just be moved from the ditch without burning. It seemed to me that, unless necessary, avoiding fire was probably a good idea. Especially with homes within a hundred yards of the ditch.

Buchanan looked at me and frowned. “That would be a lot of work,” he said.

Throughout the ditch, tumbleweed clustered and tangled together. Removing them by hand would be arduous for anyone assigned the task. Then, a truck would have to take the weeds somewhere less intrusive — somewhere the tumbleweed would be loath to stay, per its signature attribute.

Buchanan explained that there are different kinds of prescribed burns, and though runaway prescribed burns make the news, a large majority go as planned without complication. Indeed farmers, Buchanan told me, often burn their land without help. “You don’t need training or a permit to burn on agricultural land,” he said.

A ditch burn is generally considered a Type 3 burn, where “the potential for [fire] escape is negligible.” Compared to open landscape “broadcast burns,” where a swath of forest is burned over multiple days for ecological and fire mitigation benefits, a ditch burn can be finished before lunch.

Senior firefighter Kyle Holsinger uses a drip torch to ignite tumbleweeds and plant waste. The torch holds a mix of gasoline and diesel so the fire will have power to light and sustain flame. Credit: Tim Drugan

After Buchanan tossed several handfuls of dirt to the wind and deemed conditions acceptable, Kyle Holsinger, a senior firefighter with the sheriff’s office, used a drip torch to start dropping flame into the ditch. Tumbleweeds that would fill many trucks and take many hours to remove burned in moments. Brief towers of orange reduced to a thin layer of ash.

Soon, the fire risk that worried me on arrival seemed far away and ridiculous. Watching the fire and feeling its heat, I wondered why we couldn’t burn more. Why not set the whole field aflame? I commented to Holsinger that this part of the job must draw some people with a borderline obsession with fire. “Oh yeah,” he said. He added that it wasn’t just firefighters that have a fascination with flame. “When I ask my friends who work desk jobs what they’ve been up to, they say, ‘Who cares about that; what have you burned lately?’”

Yet the risk was real for some. A few packrats scrambled out of the ditch as their homes ignited. Holsinger told me that on some burns, small animals will catch fire and, in their desperation to get away, inadvertently spread flames into adjacent brush. “But those packrats were fine,” he said, pointing to where the rodents disappeared into scrub along the ditch. “They made it to safety.”

“Term” firefighter Dylan Perry pre-treats a potentially problematic section. Credit: Tim Drugan

Even though the burn was a simpler job than some, all precautions were taken. Dylan Perry, a “term” firefighter who is employed for a nine-month stint though paid throughout the year so he gets benefits, manned a hose from a Type 6 engine that crept ahead of Holsinger and the flames. A Type 1 engine is what most people think of when picturing a fire engine. A Type 6 is much closer to a pick-up truck — albeit a pick-up able to hold 350 gallons of water. Noah Nerguizian, another term firefighter, drove the truck, at ease with his role. He said he made Perry drive at the last burn.

Rather than using the hose to put out runaway sparks, “pre-treating” is a more effective use of water. Perry walked ahead and sprayed vegetation near the ditch that showed promise of joining the coming heat. In one section, for instance, a tree overhung the ditch where hungry flames could easily reach to expand their territory. Where, as Perry said “things could get spicy.” But he soaked the branches beforehand and the flames remained content with their given allotment.

Senior reporter Nathan Basalla looks for runaway sparks to tamp with his “flapper.” Credit: Tim Drugan

Nathan Basalla, another senior firefighter for the sheriff’s office, walked behind Holsinger tempering sparks. A “fire boss trainee” for the burn, Basalla will soon be qualified to run such operations on his own. For this burn, however, Basalla directed the rest of the firefighters with Buchanan available for expert opinion. While directing, Basalla manned a “flapper” — essentially a mud flap attached to a stick. With any problematic vegetation already soaked by Perry, embers that jumped from the ditch could be easily smothered by Basalla and his absurd-looking, though effective, tool.

A rhythm was established and the team worked down the ditch at a steady pace. Vegetation pre-treated, the ditch burned, sparks tamped. Buchanan moved far behind Basalla with his own truck, inspecting the work. “So-so,” he said when asked how the burn was going. He said he’d like to see more of the ditch waste incinerated. He pointed to patches of leaves in the ditch’s bottom that had rebuffed flames. 

“But it’s a lot better than it was,” Buchanan conceded.

“Fire is a tool,” he said, driving home his previous point. “And often used because it’s quicker and less expensive than the alternatives.”

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other related topics. He is also the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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