Winter is a time of snow and smoke in the Black Hills National Forest, as crews burn slash piles left from tree-cutting operations during the warmer months.
And just looking at the flames and the smoke billowing up into the winter sky, you might expect the slash piles set ablaze by crews from the U.S. Forest Service and other natural-resources management agencies to generate a flurry of forest-fire reports.
“Not necessarily,” Brian Rafferty, a district fuels technician for the Black Hills National Forest who was overseeing a slash-pile burn near Lead on Tuesday, said. “I think folks are so used to seeing smoke in the air here in the wintertime, we really don’t get a lot.”
Which is good because there would be plenty to report by a less-well-educated public. That’s because winter is the catch-up time for reducing slash left from logging and tree-thinning work during warmer months. In a world where prescribed burns can and have gone wrong, the threat is reduced by the cold and especially by the snow cover.
“We have to have a certain depth of snow on the ground, at least a minimum of three inches of snow,” Rafferty said.
There are thousands of piles waiting for the match – or, actually, the fuel-operated drip torch – across the Black Hills. There are thousands of smaller slash piles lumped together by hand crews, and the much larger piles created by machines as logging operations ended in certain areas.
It’s all part of a larger management plan for the forest that relies on tree cutting, both through commercial logging and smaller cutting operations designed specifically for certain management objectives. It’s all aimed at having a healthier forest, a stable logging industry, a reduced pine-beetle infestation and lower fire threat.
That’s especially important in areas where the thick stands of ponderosa pine bump up against communities or rural homes. There, thinning operations can reduce the risk to home and to the firefighters who might come in to protect them.
“We like to pile this up, especially near wildland-urban interface like we have here, so it gives our firefighters a chance to come in and do better structure protection,” Rafferty said.
Along with the right snow conditions, fire crews like to have just enough wind to disperse the smoke. And there’s plenty of that. Forest Service crews in the northern Black Hills alone have burned 600 machines and 150 acres of hand piles already this winter.
Forest Service Engine Capt. Chip Harris knows about fighting fires and carefully setting them to help reduce wildfire risk at other times. He’s among those who ignite the slash piles and monitor them, sometimes over a period of two or three days, to assure fire doesn’t spread but also burns thoroughly.
“There’s a lot of material on the outer ring of the fire that will not burn,” Harris said. “We will go back on the outer edges and throw those chunks or logs, we call bones, and put them in the middle of the pile so we can consume as much as possible.”
Then, with torch in hand, they continue their hot winter work.