DENVER – The Simms Fire that burned 313 acres and three structures southwest of Montrose last month stemmed from a prescribed burn that got underway on May 16 and spread beyond its initial boundaries four days later, the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests said Wednesday the USDA Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations unit and Ouray County Sheriff’s Office are still investigating the cause of the fire and working to speak with more witnesses.
But the initial investigation, according to the USFS, found that the prescribed burn that started on May 16 in a 188-acre area blew up again on May 19 during a wind event, escaping the fire lines.
Crews had been monitoring the burn area that day and saw the smoke come up from the prescribed burn area. After the fire escaped containment lines, firefighters did an initial attack and spent days, aided by precipitation, working on the fire until it was fully contained on May 23 after burning 313 acres and three structures.
“The Simms Mesa Prescribed Fire was implemented according to burn plans and state air quality permits. Favorable weather conditions and forecasts received by the National Weather Service, fuel moisture content, adequate personnel and contingency resources were within the parameters of the plan,” the USFS wrote in the release.
“Fire behavior was favorable on the day of the burn and met the objectives outlined in the plan. Firefighters patrolling the area reported that control lines were holding, interior areas weren’t showing significant smoke or heat, and no hot spot fires were detected outside of the control lines,” it went on to say. “A wind event four days later caused the Simms Mesa Prescribed Fire to escape containment lines and it was then declared a wildfire.”
The USFS said it has begun a Facilitated Learning Analysis and Review to analyze what happened that allowed the fire to escape its perimeter and become a wildfire. The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and Bureau of Land Management will join in the analysis with the USFS and local representatives.
“Our efforts unfortunately resulted in an undesirable outcome, despite the careful, detailed planning by experienced resource professionals,” Forest Supervisor Chad Stewart said in a statement. “My heart goes out to those who have been deeply impacted by the Simms Fire.”
The confirmation that the wildfire started as a prescribed burn comes just over a week after U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a 90-day pause on prescribed burns on May 20 while the USFS reviews the nationwide prescribed burn program, which is used across the country to mitigate wildfire risks.
Moore said 99.84% of prescribed burns go as planned and are successful in getting rid of excess fire fuels, and there is only a small fraction of them that have led to wildfires.
That decision was made after it was made public over the past couple of weeks that two wildfires in New Mexico that merged to become the state’s largest wildfire in history both started as prescribed burns, as Source NM reported.
Officials said while the Simms Fire was still burning that it traveled into a previous Bureau of Land Management prescribed burn area, which fire managers said “significantly reduced the intensity of the fire and slowed the fire’s progression.”