Summit wildfire council recommends 11 projects for mitigation and infrastructure funding

Summit Board of County Commissioners to award grants based on recommendations

Copper Mountain Resort trail crew member Kristie Huff cuts a tree trunk as part of a pile-burning operation at Copper on April 29.
Photo by Ashley Low

During its quarterly meeting last week, the Summit County Wildfire Council recommended the approval of 11 grant proposals meant to help mitigate the risk of wildfires in the community through hazardous fuels reduction projects and other efforts to move forward with the implementation of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

About 30 community members tuned into a virtual wildfire council meeting Thursday, May 20, when members voted on a number of grant proposals submitted by towns, resident groups and other stakeholders around Summit County. There were 11 proposals, all of which the council recommended funding — a potential investment of more than $333,000 from the county government.

The recommendations will go to the Summit Board of County Commissioners for final approval at its regular meeting June 15.

“Since 2006, the county has supported, through grants and various other things, 181 community-oriented wildfire protection projects,” Summit County CSU Extension agent Dan Schroder said. “This continues to add to the ongoing effort to protect communities and keep citizens involved in the wildfire topic. I would say the biggest thing behind all of this is education … and it’s empowering residents and visitors to accept that wildfires could occur here and have occurred in neighboring communities and states across the West. By being active and aware of the possibility, it’s potentially creating a safer environment.”

The Summit County Wildfire Council has two grant programs. The first is called the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Grant Program, which offers to reimburse applicants for up to 50% of project costs for tree removal, defensive space initiatives or other mitigation costs. The Community Wildfire Protection Plan Implementation Grant Program offers reimbursement of up to 90% for projects that don’t fit the criteria for fuels reduction, such as the development of emergency water supplies and improvements to evacuation routes and signage.

At the meeting last week, the council was given a brief presentation on each of the proposals and was asked to vote in an anonymous poll on whether to recommend funding the projects.

Council members unanimously voted to fully fund all but one of the projects: a request for $39,000 in matching funds to produce an environmental assessment at the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area adjacent to Ruby Ranch. If the study is approved, it could potentially serve as a precursor to the future treatment of a 200-foot strip of wilderness to remove dead and fallen trees bordering the neighborhood. Only one of 11 members voted not to recommend funding.

Schroder said the Ruby Ranch project is unique in that it deals with wilderness land, which is protected by the federal government and would ultimately require an act of Congress to achieve any mitigation work on the site.

“What makes this different is it’s in wilderness,” Schroder said. “It is the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, which is, under federal law, protected from developments and modification. One of the rules is take only pictures and leave only footprints — kind of along the lines of national parks.

“There have been conversations with the United States Forest Service up high, working its way through the White River National Forest and down to the Dillon Ranger District. The concept of creating a fuel break is being considered. And that’s somewhat exciting. On the other hand, it’s setting precedent for other work that might take place in the wilderness where it’s not supposed to. But this is something we’ve never seen before.”

Schroder said the applicant would first have to get a National Environmental Policy Act Environmental Assessment approved by the Forest Service, a comprehensive analysis of environmental impacts on biodiversity, wetlands, air and water pollution, geotechnical risks and more. If the assessment moves forward, the Forest Service would review the outcomes, determine if a project would theoretically be approvable and begin discussions on how crews would actually go about entering the area to remove vegetation, which would likely be an expensive endeavor using hand crews exclusively, Schroder said.

Otherwise, the wildfire council voiced nothing but support for the proposals. Perhaps the most notable plan aside from the wilderness project came from the town of Blue River, which requested more than $96,000 in matching funds for hazardous fuels reduction of about 28 acres on 45 properties in town. The proposal comes as part of an ongoing effort by Blue River to incentivize residents to participate in the program. The town offers $100 to anyone who takes part to help minimize costs, and more than 100 homes in Blue River have been treated since 2011, according to the town’s website.

The Blue River and Ruby Ranch projects represent the most expensive proposals submitted for hazardous fuels grants. Other proposals receiving funding recommendations included projects on The Estates at the Alders near Keystone, Forest Service land adjacent to the Eagles Nest neighborhood in Silverthorne, the Flying Dutchman complex near Keystone, the Highlands at Breckenridge, the Pebble Creek Ranch Foundation near Silverthorne and more spread-out mitigation projects from the Beetle Kill Tree Guys.

The final three proposals were for the Community Wildfire Protection Plan Implementation Grant Program. The town of Montezuma applied for a grant to fund the installation of a fifth fire hydrant in town, which in addition to providing firefighting water to another section of town would act as a drip to keep the water lines from freezing in the winter.

Other proposals the council recommended for funding included the installation of a new vault in the Ruby Ranch neighborhood that would connect the area’s two existing hydrants so their limited amount of water could flow more freely where needed. The final proposal was for the support of communitywide wildfire prevention education along with willow and alder thinning in Bill’s Ranch.

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