Local, state, federal forest groups prepare for 2019’s wildfire season in Summit County
December 19, 2018
This year will long be known as the year of the wildfire, as a perfect storm of drought, high temperatures and dangerously poor forest health combined to turn large parts of Colorado into huge, standing bonfires. In 2018, 11 megafires burned a combined 359,991 acres across the state — dwarfing acreage from years prior.
The Buffalo Mountain Fire came within yards of destroying homes in Summit County this summer, but no closer due to planning, prevention and mitigation efforts over the years. The Forest Health Task Force convened for the final time this year to go over those efforts at the local, state and federal level, the impact that they had on protecting the community and nature, and what's in store for 2019.
Dillon ranger Bill Jackson presented the U.S. Forest Service's report on the year and plans moving into next year. Jackson once again highlighted how the Forest Service's forest management planning a decade ago came to fruition with the Buffalo Mountain Fire this year, as fuel breaks protected the Mesa Cortina neighborhood from fire and embers that rolled down the mountain.
"We got to see in practice what we've been trying to implement for over a decade," Jackson told the task force. "We learned a lot about how they work and interact during a wildfire. It was a tough way to learn a lesson but we learned that fuel breaks help, immensely."
Jackson said that the forest service had continued its fire mitigation efforts across the county this year, including managing to burn all of the hand piles stacked up on Swan Mountain near Keystone. Altogether, the Forest Service managed to burn 3,367 hand piles and 64 machine piles. The district accounted for 31 percent of the White River National Forest's timber budget for the year.
Going into 2019, Jackson said the service will continue to work on forest management and mitigation efforts in the district, with particular attention to areas that were thinned over a decade ago that are now regrowing even thicker than before. The inner reaches of the forests on Swan Mountain will also receive more attention, as Jackson said those areas probably have never received little or no treatment since even the pioneer days.
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A 42-acre section near Frisco, around Miner's Creek, will be treated. The forest service will also assess the need to modify adaptive management and salvage prescription plans near the Peak 7 neighborhood, as the surrounding areas have not received adequate treatment due to resident opposition to thinning in the past.
Dan Schroder of the Colorado State University Extension office wants to make sure residents see the 1A funding for wildfire prevention put into action next year. To that end, the county will make sure that projects are public and visible so taxpayers know their money is being put to good use. Schroder also wanted residents to remember that despite the good snow we're looking at, it's not the broader reality.
"We are still going through a stage of severe, persistent drought," Schroder said. "What we're seeing outside the window isn't reality. The low levels at Lake Powell are the reality, wildfire is a reality here and across the West."
Schroder said that the county would continue to press fire mitigation as a top priority, and that it has a "planning for wildfires toolbelt" involving planning, building codes, mitigation and community efforts that combine to keep Summit prepared against wildfire.
Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino reported that after personally surveying the horrifying devastation in Paradise, California, from the wildfire that hit there, it became clear that the biggest problem there was a lack of "Zone 1" protection, or homeowners safeguarding their homes themselves against flammable threats. Berino said that he saw trees immediately around the homes stood standing while houses were burned to the ground, pointing to wind and ember throws from wildfires nearby launching fireballs onto roofs, removing the "middleman" of nearby forest entirely.
Berino said he would make educating homeowners on updating and improving their own homes a priority in the coming year. Whether it's making sure their homes are up to fire code, or that they have the right construction materials like Class A roofing, Berino said he and his crews would be making an active effort to engage with homeowners and talk to them about safeguarding their homes.
"We're going to take the roadshow to the yards," Berino said. "When people are playing Frisbee or horseshoes or beer, we want to engage them, as well as visitors to the county. One of our weak links is education, and we need to use the lessons from Paradise to strengthen that."