The prescription for better wildlife habitat in the region around Bruin Point - fire. And the fire, nearly 1,000 acres in all, is coming before July 1.
The time frame and acreage are predictable because they are planned by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. On Tuesday, the division's northeast area fire management officer Steve Rutter described the so-called Cold Springs Prescribed Burn at a special session of the Carbon County Commission. He emphasized the safeguards that will be in place to prevent a repeat of last year's West Scofield fire, a prescribed burn that broke out of its boundaries and threatened mountain cabins before it was brought under control.
Like a NASA launch, the prescription has a long list of go-no go decision criteria for each day of the week-long burn. A single "no" on any point is enough to scrub the mission. If for any reason the scheduled burn is delayed past the first of July, then the entire burn will be canceled until next year, Mr. Rutter said.
The reason for the strict deadline is that sagebrush begins losing its moisture rapidly at that time. Plant moisture is important for preventing the blaze from spreading and also for preserving the habitat. "We don't want to create a moonscape," Mr. Rutter told commissioners, "The objective is to kill subalpine fir only." No one wants to ruin the habitat for sage grouse, he said.
The state Division of Wildlife Resources, along with Hunt Oil, which owns property in the area, want to improve deer and elk habitat by getting rid of the conifers and allowing aspen to spread.
Among the many precautions involved in the burn are:
* Torching only a portion of the 1,000 acres at a time. The burn zones are mapped out like a patchwork on the east side of the county. Crews will ignite the trees with hand torches at the lower part of slopes, followed by helicopters with drip torches covering the top.
* Nightly inspection of each burned area. The West Scofield fire did not get out of control during the prescribed burn, but afterward. When Commissioner Mike Milovich asked if the strong winds the area has been experiencing pose a problem, Mr. Rutter replied that those inspections will go on for six weeks after the prescribed burn if necessary, just to make sure.
* Seven fire engines and a 20-member hand crew are dedicated to this burn. Neither personnel nor equipment can be pulled to fight any other fires. Crews will camp at the site and eat catered meals there until the job is done. In addition, water tank trucks will be on hand to refill engines, if needed. The torch-bearing helicopter can also be refitted with a "pumpkin" - a collapsible canvas bag that can carry thousands of gallons of water to extinguish fires.
Mr. Rutter also said the prescription criteria include compliance with air quality regulations.
In addition to fire control, other concerns include archaeology (surveys show nothing in the area) and personal property (no cabins).
In answer to a question from Commissioner Bill Krompel about erosion after the fire, Mr. Rutter explained that the sage should remain standing. There will be some erosion, but it will not be extreme. Fred Kaminsky of the US Forest Service seconded that opinion, explaining the spring-early summer period will allow ground-holding vegetation to spread quickly.
Commissioners expressed their confidence in the plan. Commissioner Krompel - smiling - asked Mr. Rutter, "So if something does go awry, we can blame you?"
"Absolutely," was the reply.