Summit County got lucky with the Peak 2 Fire, but preparing for the next one is no simple task
July 15, 2017
The plague has passed, but a resulting sickness lingers, with clusters of dead pines crawling up otherwise green mountainsides like gnarled, grey fingers.
The pine beetle epidemics that killed them passed around 2013, but the blight left behind now covers 156,000 acres of forest in Summit County alone. Across the White River National Forest, that figure is 386,000.
Forest officials describe these stands of desiccated lodgepole pines as more than just eyesores, forming runnels of tinder that sit woven through the forest like fuses.
Counter-intuitively, academic research is unclear on whether or not beetle-kill makes fires more likely. Some argue that factors like climate change, which set the stage for beetle-kill in the first place, are actually far more important .
What's less in question, but by no means settled, is that high concentrations of beetle-kill can make fires more intense and difficult to fight; their trunks provide fuel and their bare branches leave the duff below exposed to nonstop sunlight, while those that have fallen sit in jumbles like pick-up-sticks, waiting to fall without warning on firefighters.
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As Colorado reckons with this next stage of the beetle plague, it faces the prospect of 3.4 million acres of dead trees standing in wait to help fuel the next Black Forest or Waldo Canyon Fire.
Sitting in a crucible of these unhealthy forests are Summit County's 30,000 residents and roughly $1.5 billion worth of residential and commercial property.
On July 5, they all saw what it can look like when a fuse in the forest is lit, with flames soaring 125 feet into the air, eagerly lapping up the side of the Ten Mile Range and sending up a plume of smoke more fitting for a weapons test than a 84-acre fire.
Firefighters responded with commendable speed. But they acknowledged it was pure luck that a shift in the wind sat the blaze down, allowing them to encircle and contain it over the next several says.
"This will not be your last fire, I promise you that," said Todd Pechota, whose elite team of firefighters was called in to manage the blaze, addressing an audience of residents on July 12. "Next time, you may not get the weather break we got, and the outcome could be very different."
When the pine beetle epidemic began in Summit in the early 2000's, mitigation efforts focused on containing the pest's spread. But the beetle — which kills lodgepole pines by boring tunnels through their trunks — ravaged the county nonetheless.
By the time the epidemic ended in 2013, it had impacted nearly every single stand of county's lodgepoles, which make up around 80 percent of the area's total forested land.
Now, the strategy is to thin fuels in the highest-risk areas, removing some of the tinder before the next fire inevitably hits.
The U.S. Forest Service has invested heavily in these efforts over the years and is currently moving ahead with an 860-acre mitigation project between Interstate 70 and Highway 6 near Keystone.
Private lands also play a key role. The county government has for years pushed a program that provides free "defensible space" consultations to homeowners, advising them on how they can clear thin and clear vegetation around their homes to create a fire-resilient perimeter.
The county's chipping program — which offers free disposal service for branches, logs and small trees — boasts of clearing more than 16,000 slash piles since 2014.
For four years in a row, the Summit Association of Realtors has also offered defensible space grants to residents.
"We've chosen to build a community right in the middle of a forest," said White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. "But when we get to live in these environments we have to take on the responsibility, and there's a whole host of responsibilities that come with the incredible public lands that we get to use every single day."
Big government or big fires?
Fire mitigation efforts, however, aren't always popular with residents.
"We've tried to do some work in the Peak 7 neighborhood in the past, but some of your neighbors had issues with what we've tried to do," Adam Bianchi, deputy ranger for the Dillon District, said at a public meeting when asked by a homeowner about heavy beetle kill in the area.
More than 450 homes were evacuated in that neighborhood during the Peak 2 Fire, which sat less than two miles from the fire lines.
"A lot of folks had issues with what we were proposing," Bianchi said after the meeting. "That's not necessarily a Peak 7 issue… we work for the people and if they have a problem with what were doing we listen to that."
In 2009, the Breckenridge Town Council stoked the ire of many homeowners with a defensible space ordinance that required them to cut more trees around their homes.
The ordinance narrowly passed amid public outcry and a petition campaign but was softened and made to be voluntary. In a Summit Daily article, one resident likened the action to that of an "arbitrary dictatorship."
"There were a lot of people that came to meetings and yelled at us," recalled mayor Eric Mamula, who was a councilman at the time. "People even came into my restaurant and got in my face about it."
Part of the outcry was due to rules under previous town councils requiring builders to plant more trees closer to structures, Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District chief Jim Keating said.
The about-face frustrated homeowners who had spent a lot of money to comply with those rules only to be told they then had to cut the trees down, Keating said.
"That created a very unhealthy climate between the citizens and the authorities," he recalled.
Now, however, some officials are hoping that the close call with the Peak 2 Fire will allay "big government" concerns and restart the conversation about defensible space rules.
"That big smoke column scared the hell out of a lot of people," Keating said.
Mamula didn't delve into specifics but said the town council might soon consider new approaches to ensure the county's largest town is fire resilient.
"It is daunting to think that we live in this damaged forest," Mamula said. "We made a stab at clear-cutting around peoples homes at one point and got screamed at by the community, but maybe we make a run at that again. This is the kind of thing that opens peoples' eyes."
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