Report: Out-of-Control Nature Conservancy Prescribed Burn Result Of ‘Complex Factors’

Photo courtesy of Larimer County Sheriff's Office.
Firefighters respond to the Elk Fire October 2019 in Larimer County.

There was no one thing that led to the Elk Fire, a controlled burn started by the Nature Conservancy in October 2019, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety Compliance and Professional Standards Office.

The Nature Conservancy started the fire Oct. 15 2019 at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch southeast of Red Feather Lakes in Northern Colorado. Dry and windy conditions caused the fire to spread quickly.

No homes or lives were lost because of the fire, which burned 120 acres beyond the prescribed 500-acre boundary.

“What we found was that this escape was the result of a variety of complex factors — factors that are probably common at a lot prescribed fires, but which compounded over a very short matter of time on Oct. 16 to lead to this wildfire,” said Bobbie Mooney, the compliance officer who led the review team in a release. 

The report cites weaknesses in the Nature Conservancy’s prescribed fire plan, inadequate analysis of weather reports and issues with the “collaborative burn” model used by TNC staff. That model brings together staff from about 10 different agencies, some of whom were unfamiliar with others’ experience when the wildfire jumped its boundaries. That created confusion at a critical time.

Rob Addington, forest and fire program director with the Nature Conservancy said the collaborative model remains important for TNC. Going forward he said the executive summary report gave his agency enough details to “take to heart in thinking about how we build these collaboratives,” he said.

It took dozens of firefighters and three days to put out the wildfire.

The executive summary report by Colorado state officials marks the first time since a 2013 law change required this type of review for controlled burns that become wildfires. It was passed in the wake of the Lower North Fork fire, a prescribed burn that destroyed 22 homes southwest of Denver in 2012.

A full report is expected in two weeks.