For Ruby Ranch residents, years of advocacy and planning brings wildfire mitigation
For property owners of Ruby Ranch, years of advocating, planning and work have come to fruition as work crews complete fire mitigation in the wilderness near their homes to limit the risks of wildfire.
Various groups — including the United States Forest Service, Summit County government and Summit County Wildfire Council, among others — partnered on the project, which aims to thin 28 acres along 1.5 miles of Forest Service land. Because motorized tools like chainsaws are not allowed in the wilderness, all cutting and piling had to be done by hand.
Kat Gray, fuels planner for the Dillon Ranger District, said that this project is a “unique” situation, with private properties sharing a boundary with the Eagles Nest Wilderness, a U.S. Wilderness Area located in the Gore Range, and projects like these do not happen often. She added that the team who planned the project took a “very light-handed approach” to managing the area, and the end effect should result in less intense fire behavior. Firefighters can more safely engage with any wildfires before it spreads to the neighborhood.
“It’s not something we take lightly — management in the wilderness,” Gray said. “We have pretty strict management rules for what we can and can’t do in the wilderness. So the environmental analysis took all of that into consideration. And that’s why the hardworking men are out here with handsaws instead of chainsaws.”
Gray added that mitigation projects cost much less than restoration and recovery after a wildfire. While Ptarmigan Fire recovery cost millions of dollars, the fuels break project in Ruby Ranch cost about $500,000. The Summit County Strong Future Fund, the Ruby Ranch Homeowners Association and some funds from the Forest Service were used to pay for the project.
Lisa Lewis, a homeowner in Ruby Ranch who helped organize the work, said that she and her neighbors started attending Wildfire Council meetings to get the ball rolling on having crews clear space on the urban-wildland interface. Since then, the Willow Brook Metro Board hired two retired Forest Service employees to assist with working with current Forest Service officials as well as drafting an operating plan as to how the fuels break would be completed.
“This is such a major dream come true,” Lewis said. “I believe our neighborhood is so amazed that this is happening. It really is this unintended consequence of how beautiful it is on top of (a mountain). We were all like, ‘Oh, we’re sitting ducks, we’re all going to get burned down. What are we going to do? How come we can’t get anybody to do anything?’ And now that it’s getting done, this meadow is going to be beautiful once they’ve got (the dead trees) picked up.”
Lewis said she encourages other neighborhoods that are interested in fuels reduction in their neighborhoods to start now rather than later.
“While it took us 10 years to get here, it doesn’t mean you can’t start now in your own community,” Lewis said.
Dan Schroder, Summit County director of the Colorado State University Extension, said that when one neighborhood mitigates wildfire risk, it can benefit communities across the county. If a fire were to begin near Ruby Ranch, it could easily spread to Wildernest, parts of Silverthorne or beyond. Charred debris that’s left on the ground can runoff with rain into the Blue River, which can cause another multitude of issues, he said.
Though recent rains have kept Summit County from having fire restrictions, Schroder said that does not necessarily mean that communities should feel like there’s no risk for wildfire. He said residents should always be aware of risks and potential places for reduction since Summit County has been in a 20-year drought. Just because the surface of the soil is wet does not mean that it has canceled out low soil moisture deep underground.
“Projects like this — fuels reduction — protect communities and infrastructure, but we kind of have a three-tier system: it’s life, property and infrastructure,” he said. “The No. 1 item, we need to protect ourselves. That needs to be the topic on the forefront. That’s a lot of the Wildfire Council jobs — staff, outreach and education — is a matter of keeping this topic on people’s minds, rather than sifting through the mind filter and falling away. We want to keep wildfire and community protection upfront.”
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