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Helicopter Drops 'Fireballs' That Ignite Controlled Burns To Mitigate Wildfire Fuel, Help Elk Habitat

EAGLE, Colo. (CBS4)- A small window of good weather gave fire crews an opportunity to conduct a critical prescribed burn north of Edwards in Muddy Pass, and CBS4 the opportunity to see the unique technology used to do it.

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"By burning this area we're killing some aspen and causing re-sprouting to occur, which actually provides really protein-rich forage for elk and helps them survive during the tough winter months," said Jen Prusse, district wildlife biologist with the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.

The goal of Friday's mission was to help improve habitat for the ranging elk- the amount of deadfall was enough to prevent potential new growth from occurring. Prusse hopes the burn will help stimulate growth in time for calving season.

"There's actually a fair bit of aspen mortality, you can see where the elk have over browsed the aspen and there's really little in the understory, and so what we really need is to try and stimulate that sprouting response so that next generation of aspen comes up," she said.

The over-browsed aspens and subsequent encroaching spruce pine are perfect fuel for potential wildfires. It's the secondary reason the burn is so important.

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"It's cleaning up a lot of fuel that's been down on the ground for a long time."

The Montrose Helitack team was ready to go Friday with an aerial attack using a plastic sphere dispenser, or PSD. It's a dispenser filled with what look like ping pong balls, each containing a powder form of potassium permanganate.

"Right here, we have a hopper, so what it does, it continually shakes, and the balls are all inside of here and they drop down into the shoot here. Then what happens is, there are needles and they inject glycol, and it causes a chemical reaction and then they drop down the shoot and beneath the helicopter into the burn area."

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While it's not new technology, it's become essential in fighting and preventing forest fires. It's also one of the most efficient methods to do both.

"It is a good way to get a lot of fire on the ground without exposing a lot of firefighters on the ground," said the assistant supervisor for Montrose Helitack.

The window to conduct these spring burns is small, this is likely one of the last opportunities before fire crews shift their focus to fighting fires.

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