2017 Year in Review: After an eye-opening wildfire season in Summit County, what comes next?
Editor’s note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top stories of 2017.
At first, it was just wisps of smoke lazily curling up from the hills near Breckenridge, but in the fickle way of fires, it soon sent a fearsome column of smoke towering into the sky, visible from all across Summit County.
Hundred-foot flames danced up the mountainside toward town, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes and drawing swarms of TV news crews from the Front Range to the scene of the Peak 2 Fire on July 5.
But when the camera vans arrived, there wasn’t much to see. The wind that breathed life into the fire had shifted again, flattening it back on itself and stopping the flames dead in their tracks.
The Peak 2 Fire, which burned roughly 80 acres near Gold Hill, only ever grew for an hour or two, but it transfixed Summit County for days, as hundreds of evacuees waited for the green light to return home and thousands more held their breath as the fire sat smoldering.
It was the biggest, most dramatic fire in Summit County this year and one of many in a record-setting fire season nationwide that drew helicopters, slurry tankers and firefighters from across the country as they stamped out one blaze after another.
By wildfire standards, Peak 2 was tiny, but its location just miles from Breckenridge attracted the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, an elite group of firefighters and support staff dubbed the “Navy SEALS of wildland firefighters.”
It was the wind that killed the fire. But to cut containment lines around it and prevent its spread, the team had to navigate a warren of standing dead beetle-kill trees, which pose grave safety hazards to firefighters.
During fires far from population centers, like the Gutlzer Fire, which burned nearly 1,000 acres after igniting north of Heeney on July 2, firefighters have the luxury of keeping their distance, betting that the blaze will mostly die out on its own before threatening structures.
This fire season, however was marked by large, fast-moving fires just miles from urban areas — particularly in Oregon and California.
Colorado’s fire season was tame by comparison, but Summit County saw two fires that burned right on peoples’ doorsteps. It served as a stark reminder that almost all of the county’s population lives in a wildfire zone.
The only other major fire, Tenderfoot 2, burned 25 acres near Dillon in September. Although it was contained quickly, it was a too close for comfort for many residents, who joined lines of cars parked on the side of Highway 6 watching the fire as it burned just a couple hundred yards away.
Human activity sparked both of the fires. Tenderfoot 2 was ignited by an exploded insulator cap along the many miles of power lines than run through an increasingly urbanized Summit County; Peak 2 is believed to have been started by a pair of hikers traveling on one of the county’s increasingly popular trails.
The Peak 2 Fire cost the U.S. Forest Service about $2 million to suppress, and Summit County agreed to cover about $400,000 of that. If the two hikers were identified and found responsible, they could be compelled to repay the Forest Service, like one man who was ordered to pay $53,000 early this year for accidentally starting a small wildfire near the landfill in 2016.
It’s rare to find the person responsible for a fire, so the Forest Service usually pays the full cost. As fire suppression has steadily taken up more of the agency’s budget — from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015 — forest managers have to make tough decisions about what projects to put on hold. This year’s fire season was the most expensive for the Forest Service yet, running up more than $2 billion.
On top of that, the amount of money going to the agency’s national forests has been steadily shrinking as well.
The White River National Forest, which includes Summit County’s Dillon Ranger District, has seen its budget shrink from $30 million in 2008 to around $16 million now.
For the past several years, White River has seen its budget tick down about 10 percent, and the upcoming fiscal year is expected to be about the same. The nation’s busiest national forest is thus hit with dual financial pressures, with increasing fire costs and a steadily dwindling budget.
That comes at a time when the forest’s many trails are seeing more use than ever, particularly in Summit County. Quandary Peak Trail is estimated to be the fourth most popular 14er in the state, and that’s got managers brainstorming ways to ease congestion — possibly with a shuttle from Breckenridge.
The trail itself, meanwhile, is getting some love from volunteers with groups like the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District and Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. With the Forest Service strapped for cash, private groups are stepping up to help maintain trails.
Other groups, like Summit County’s Forest Health Task Force, are helping the Forest Service conduct tree surveys that help them choose where to conduct treatments on the beetle-addled forest. Dubbed “citizen science,” the practice is being used in other parts of the state as well, providing managers with data they need while bolstering the public’s connection to their lands.
This spirit of volunteerism is a bright spot in a somewhat grim future of worsening fires fought in unhealthy forests with money that could go toward trail maintenance and fuel thinning projects.
Summit County is about 30,000 people living in a tinderbox, and 2017 provided a stark reminder of that.
And while it’s good that our forest has plenty of friends, it could need a lot more in the years to come.
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