The U.S. Forest Service last week took advantage of the cooler days and moist air to burn off some of the duff and brush from the Stanislaus National Forest.

Two prescribed burns one about four miles south of Long Barn in Tuolumne County and the other six miles west of Bear Valley in Calaveras County danced across the forest floor to clean it of undergrowth that could fuel a dangerous fire later this summer.

The fire near Long Barn was scheduled to finish during the weekend, and Forest Service officials there hoped to burn 450 acres. The fires near Bear Valley are scheduled to wrap up early this week, and Calaveras fire teams hoped to burn about 500 acres.

"This week has been really good for us," said Rob Lang, resource protection officer on Mi-Wok Ranger District. "All the elements have just fallen into place."

Lang said the late rainy season and relatively cool days last week kept brush moisture at the right level to fuel small burns but prevent flames from leaping into the treetops.

Also, no large fires have ignited yet in the West, so the Stanislaus is full of firefighters to tend to the controlled burns and ensure nothing escapes.

Foothill firefighters are often sent to help other crews battle catastrophic blazes during the summer. But for prescribed burns, Lang said, he needs a well-stocked firefighting staff on hand in case flames jump out of control.

"We have to plan for, hypothetically, if we lost it," Lang said.

The area burned near Long Barn is a tree plantation stocked in the 1960s after the Wright's Creek Fire engulfed the plot the decade before.

The stand was thinned four or five years ago, Lang said, meaning logging crews cut and removed smaller trees and brush from the site. Clearing this understory helped reduce the fuel load that built up over more than four decades.

"We could not do this unless it was thinned first," said Tim Adamiak, fuels officer on Mi-Wok Ranger District. Prescribed burns clear the area of debris after thinning crews have left the forest, like vacuuming a carpet between deep-cleaning shampoos.