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Firefighters chip away at Colorado’s wildfire risks as drought intensifies

by Scott Condon, Aspen Times |

About 12 miles south of Carbondale on a gentle slope dominated by aging oak brush, a bulldozer fitted with an industrial-sized mulcher chewed through leafless trunks and limbs on a recent afternoon.

The work covering 29 acres on national forestland was invisible to traffic whizzing by on Highway 133 and from homes at the adjacent Swiss Village subdivision. But firefighters and public land managers considered it a small, vital step in what will be a long process to reduce fire hazard in pockets throughout the greater Roaring Fork Valley.

The specially fitted bulldozer, technically known as a masticator, created a mosaic of cleared spaces between clumps of decadent oak. Between 40 and 60 percent of the old, dying oaks will be removed, said Mike Uncapher, who heads a company called Western Vegetation Management, the contractor undertaking the fire mitigation.

The results of the work brought a smile to the face of Carbondale Fire Chief Rob Goodwin during a tour on a rainy afternoon. Before the thinning, the hillside was covered with fuels that would produce a crown fire that could skip along the tops of the 12-foot oaks, he said. Now, the conformity of fuels is broken up.

“The crown isn’t there anymore,” Goodwin said. “The fire will stop and skunk around.”

That’s a good thing. When the fire stalls, it gives firefighters a chance to do the work needed to prevent flames from reaching homes in Swiss Village and making a run through the forest. The work also opens access for firefighters to attack the fire.

Uncapher said by July, the old, decadent oak brush that was removed over the past two weeks will be replaced by green, supple shoots of oak, a resilient plant. The cleared areas create a “heat sink” that makes it more difficult for a wildfire to advance, he said.

The U.S. Forest Service approved six fire mitigation projects in the Crystal River Valley in 2018. They are designed to reduce fire danger in what’s referred to as the wildland-urban interface.

In addition to the project adjacent to Swiss Village, the agency has already treated about 7 acres in Nettle Creek, where Carbondale’s water treatment facility is located. The other projects include mechanical treatment — by hand crew or the masticator — of 100 acres near Redstone and 26 acres of mechanical treatment near Marble. When conditions are favorable, the Forest Service wants to also set a prescribed burn on 115 acres near Marble.

While the White River National Forest has the approvals for the projects, it does not have the funding to complete them. The U.S. Forest Service is spending an increasing amount of funds on fire suppression.

“There are a couple of bills in Congress that are floating around that could help, but barring that, right now, no, there’s not a lot of extra money within the Forest Service budget to dedicate specifically to fuels reduction,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said. “There’s money out there but it’s the same amount as last year and the year before.”

The White River is focused on getting approvals in place for the projects, then look for partners to help with funding. At the project near Swiss Village, that was a winning formula.

The cost of the project was between $15,000 and $16,000. It was funded through a rare partnership among the Forest Service, Pitkin County, and the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District. The Swiss Village Homeowners Association approved funding for wildfire mitigation within its subdivision in a separate but coordinated move with the project on adjacent national forest.

Pitkin County director of emergency management Valerie MacDonald organized the cooperation through her persistent efforts, according to Goodwin.

“This is not normal, and I love it,” Goodwin said of the teamwork.

MacDonald said the Swiss Village project is the model for what it will take to reduce wildfire danger in Pitkin County and elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley. There’s no question the work is needed, she said. Pitkin County was the only county in northwest Colorado last year that didn’t have a major wildfire. That luck is unlikely to hold as drought conditions persist. Last year was the worst in history for wildland fires in Colorado.

John Mele, a member of the Pitkin County Wildfire Council, said the board was aware of the approval for the Forest Service project adjacent to Swiss Village so it worked on funding.

“We can get something done and hopefully this is the start of that partnership for other projects like this,” he said.

Another goal of the partnerships is to perform work that motivates private landowners to consult with their fire department to determine what can be done reduce the risk of wildfire on their lands. (See related fact box for information on how to contact local fire departments for property assessments.) Goodwin said there has been increased interest on the part of landowners on performing that work.