Beetle aftermath up in smoke in Monday’s burn in Breckenridge |

Beetle aftermath up in smoke in Monday’s burn in Breckenridge

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Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Capt. Chris Sutton is silhouetted against the smoke filtering through the sunlight at a prescribed burn in the Highlands of Breckenridge in August of 2016.
Photo by Mark Fox / Summit Daily archives

BRECKENRIDGE – The heat emanated outwards at least 50 feet from the piles of branches, trunks and pine needles to the point where it was hard to tell if our backs and faces were being warmed by the sun or heat from the flames that licked more than 30 feet in the air.

Chris Sutton and Phil Graham lit the lumber piles – which ranged in diameter from about 30 to 60 feet and stood more than a dozen feet tall – with fusees and drip torches. As they did so, wind whipped up the hillside of the Highlands at Breckenridge neighborhood, fanning the flames. The fire crackled over its low rumble as smoke wafted up and out of the valley.

Sutton, a captain and engine boss, and Graham, a firefighter paramedic, worked together on one edge of the wildland-urban interface at the Highlands during the Red, White and Blue Fire Department’s prescribed burn Monday. They were part of an ongoing effort to mitigate the effects of the pine beetle epidemic in Breckenridge.

The firefighters were tasked with starting the fires and “baby-sitting” them to make sure sparks and hot ash didn’t stray into surrounding slash left on the ground and into the forest. They kept a chainsaw nearby in case flames engulfed nearby healthy trees – left standing to help accelerate forest regeneration.

“You can’t have a 60-foot Roman candle throwing sparks into the forest,” Sutton said, referring to what would happen if standing trees caught fire.

Underfoot was a mess of slash, which includes pine cones that release lodgepole seed and create habitat for small woodland creatures in the absence of the overarching forest.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Battalion Chief Kim Scott and Wildfire Coordinator Mathew Benedict headed up another set of prescribed burns.

Under the shadows of smoke and flame that danced on the uneven ground, Scott explained the burn is part of a four-year, continued partnership between the Town of Breckenridge, the Red, White and Blue Fire District, Summit County Open Space and Trails and the Colorado State Forest Service as well as town volunteers.

“The Town of Breckenridge is on the leading edge as far as the county goes in treating open space land,” Scott said. Partnering with the county means funding that has plenty of bang for its buck: She said each of Breckenridge’s dollars is matched with $1 of county funding through 2008’s Referendum 1A.

Benedict added that local recreators have helped by planting wildflower and native grass seed to begin regenerating the forest and preempting noxious weed takeover.

“In a couple of years, (new plants) will be growing, especially on the south faces,” Scott said. “We could be looking at 20 years of gray mountainsides, or we could look at new shoots this spring.”

Breckenridge Open Space and Trails Planner Scott Reid said about 30 acres of timber was burned Monday. Another 10 to 15 was trucked to a mill, chipped or scattered as slash.

Recreationists can benefit from mitigation efforts because their trails are reopened after a year of mitigation instead of closed permanently when jackstraw covers the paths, Scott said. She added that it’s helpful from a firefighter’s point of view to have the fire break as well as to simply be able to get into the forest for fire prevention – something fallen timber often prevents.

SDN reporter Janice Kurbjun can be contacted at (970) 668-4630 or at

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